Russian Language School

It was October in Indiana, 1964, and from the back seat of the taxicab, I watched the piles of yellow leaves along the street swirl up into the air in the wake of our passing.

Early in the morning the day before, dressed in my Air Force uniform, I had climbed onto a Greyhound bus and left Laramie, Wyoming behind. There was a dusting of snow on the ground when I left and a cold, dry wind blowing that had tugged at my garrison cap.  Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the lowering sun still warmed the pavement. The humid air had a different odor. It had that earthy smell of things still growing, unwilling to finally give it over and slide into dormancy. It was a time for planting the kinds of seeds that would wait underground for months before finally breaking into the spring sunlight.

Being that twenty-four hours on a cross-country bus can turn your brain into overcooked meatloaf, it will come as no surprise that I have no memory of signing-in, talking to anyone, or dragging my old suitcase up to my room. I was hanging uniforms up in the closet when a guy stuck his head in the door and introduced himself. He had been on the program for three months already, and I guess had appointed himself head of the Welcome Wagon for the new guys on this particular floor. He may have said some interesting things, but only one got through the afore-mentioned burnt meatloaf.

“People from Indiana,” he said, “are known as ‘Hoosiers.’ The Russian word that is pronounced ‘hoozheh’ means ‘worse.’ And that about says it all, man.”

After I had eaten and then slept for nearly ten hours, I began to feel somewhat human again and was able to process my surroundings. Bloomington, Indiana was a small Midwestern town surrounding a huge, Big 10 university campus. Thirty thousand young Hoosiers had come here to binge drink, have sex, and possibly even get an education on the side. They probably still do. On the edge of the IU campus at that time and covering about one city block, stood a small group of buildings belonging to the US Air Force. This was the USAF/IU Russian Language Training Program. Every three months about a hundred airmen fresh out of Basic Training would come in to replace the group that had just graduated. A year later, those airmen would leave the school having, if not fluency, then a fairly good ability to speak and understand the Russian language – especially the military terms.

During the thirty-five years that Stalin ruled Soviet Russia, more than three million Russians were forced to flee their country and find a life elsewhere. Compared to the twenty million who died from starvation, were executed, or froze to death in Siberian labor camps, the refugees were the lucky ones. From this long, nightmarish tragedy, one bright light did appear. Stalin provided native Russian speakers to teach American Airmen his language.

It’s funny, but in the more-than-fifty-years since I was at that school. My Russian skills have all but disappeared. “Hello,” “goodbye,” “go to Hell,” and “I want to sleep with you” are about all that remain. And yet, I can remember several of the native Russians who taught us as clearly as if I left there just last week. Each of them had a different story about how and why they left their native land and the paths that took them, finally, to the United States.

Paretsky rarely talked about his adventures, only that he had been an officer in the Soviet Army and was assigned to a company guarding the Finnish border. One night, he packed a little traveling bag and walked into the forest. An hour later, he was knocking on the door of a farmhouse in Finland. More than that, he would not say. I think he felt he was still an officer and was not comfortable telling enlisted men about his life.

On the other hand, Marya Borisovna was as garrulous as Paretsky was reserved. She had been one of the children in a family of Kulaks. When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, all the agricultural land in the new Soviet Union was privately owned. If you were one of these landowners, you were a Kulak. When the Kulaks were told that the government now owned their land, everything on it, and everything it produced, the Kulaks were understandably upset and tried to resist. So the local Commissars divided the Kulaks into three groups – those who were to be shot, those who were to be transported to Siberian labor camps, and those who were to be thrown out of the country. Marya Borisovna’s family was among the exiles.

I don’t know how they got the order, but I can well imagine some pompous little blacksmith’s assistant turned bureaucrat showing up at the farmhouse door and telling them to be ready to leave in forty-eight hours.

After a long train ride south, they were marched across the border into Afghanistan and dumped. They were allowed to take nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. Marya Borisovna told us that it was her mother’s foresight that not only allowed the family to survive but made it possible for them all to immigrate to the United States. During the few days they had between being notified of what was to happen and the actual rounding-up by the Red Army, Marya’s mother had gone through her jewelry and carefully removed every gemstone. Then she and the older girls wrapped each of the stones in cloth and used them to replace the buttons on the family’s clothing. They were stopped and thoroughly searched several times on their way to the border, but their guards never twigged to the fact that the women’s dresses and the men’s waistcoats were all fastened with slightly odd-shaped cloth buttons. By judiciously selling a few here and a few there, the jewels lasted until they were safely housed in an apartment in lower Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island.

The most imposing figure of the “White” Russians who taught us was a tall, craggy man with white hair and an ugly scar on the left side of his scalp that started at his hairline and went back a few inches. He carried himself with the kind of quiet dignity that comes from going through Hell and surviving. This was Boris Nikolayevich Dubkov. He had been in the Red Army during World War Two (The Russians call it “The Great Patriotic War”) and rose to the rank of Starshina which corresponds to our Master Sergeant. Dubkov served in a T-34 tank as driver and second-in-command. To get the full effect of G-n Dubkov telling us his story, you have to imagine a tall man in a well-tailored suit with a deeply-accented rumbling voice. He holds a cigarette backward in the Russian manner and waves it around as he talks.

”In Battle of Kursk, I drive tank out of forest. See Panzer tank. Blow up Panzer tank. Turn to right, see another Panzer tank. It has machine gun shooting. Bullets come in through viewing window. One bullet hit here (he points to the scar on his scalp). Second bullet goes in here (he points to the lower inside corner of his right eye socket). Bullet comes out here (he points to the inside of his left ear). Many months in hospital. I do not die. But in this ear, I hear nothing, only bells. All of the time… only bells.”

Father Belitsky had been a Russian Orthodox priest for most of his long, adult life. He was ordained shortly before the 1917 revolution. Though the Bolsheviks had closed the churches and outlawed religious ceremonies, Father Belitsky, by being very careful, continued to secretly provide religious services to the people who needed them. It wasn’t until after the War that an informant betrayed him and he had to leave the country or be arrested. After we had been at the school for a few months and had begun to understand a little bit of the language, Father Belitsky invited a couple of us, John Zavacky and I, to witness a Mass. He had made the living room of his little house into a small church by setting up three short rows of folding chairs and covering the walls with painted wooden icons of different saints. Afterward, John and I joined him at his little kitchen table for shots of vodka with black pepper and a part-English, part Russian, and part-pantomime conversation.

My favorite Instructor, mostly because he was such a character, was Teodor Petrovich Gunisovsky. He was a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and was living in that Province of the CCCP when the Germans broke the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded in June of 1941. Having lived under Stalin for the past 15 years, thousands of Ukrainians thought “Anything has got to be better than this monster” and not only surrendered to the Germans but offered to help them defeat Stalin. G-n Gunisovsky was among these people. Had Hitler taken the deal, his combined army would probably have taken Moscow, and eventually the whole country, in a walk. Instead, he and his high command pronounced all Slavs to be “subhuman,” and tossed them into prison camps.

Gunisovsky and his fellow turncoats spent nearly two years in the German prison camp and were finally liberated by the counter-attacking Red Army in early 1943. But before the inmates could say “Dogi, ispolnyay svoy dolg!” (Feet, do your duty!), the Russian High Command realized who they were and threw them all into Russian prison camps. Gunisovsky spent another three or four years, barely avoiding death by starvation and frostbite, in several camps high in the Ural Mountains, a beautiful, but nearly trackless wilderness, about 1500 miles northeast of Moscow. Then one day he decided it was time to try to escape to the West. On foot. And he made it. The journey covered well over two thousand miles. It would be like walking cross-country from Chicago to San Francisco. Taking no main roads and avoiding anyone who looked like a Communist Party member, he depended on peasants for some food now and then and for a hayloft to sleep in. Here’s the kicker. While in the mountains, he had suffered snow-blindness so frequently that his corneas were permanently scarred. He was nearly blind.

Our names made as little sense to the Russians as their names to us. Most of them just relied on the plastic nameplates we all wore over our right breast-pockets. But Gunisovsky preferred to make up nicknames for his students. One guy, for example, was “Red-Eyed Devil” because he was frequently hungover. Another was “Airman Bigboots” because of his enormous feet. I was “Yazychnik.” The word translates as “barbarian” but its root is “the tongued one.” When one of my friends told Gunisovsky that I could touch the tip of my nose with my tongue, he called me in for a demonstration. I complied and was immediately awarded the name. Soon after, he was standing in the hallway with some other teachers when he saw me, called me over, and had me show them. Then he said something in Russian which doubled the other instructors over. Later, he told me the translation. “The Post Office should pay him to stand next to the mail slot as a service to people with stamps and envelopes.”

It may have been that the Stalinist autocracy only drove the kind, big-hearted, fun-loving people out of the country and let only the cold and nasty pieces of work stay. But I doubt it. I think the folks at that school were a cross-section of what most all Russian people are like. And what are they like? They are very much like us.

Theatre Disasters

Over the years, I’ve always been attracted to live theatre (and no, I didn’t spell that incorrectly. One sees movies in a “theater” but if it’s a live show and you spell it “…er”, we theatre folk will smack you over the head with a powder puff.)  I’ve acted in a lot of shows, two dozen at last count, and there are a few more that I’ve written or directed.  If you add in the shows that I wasn’t in, but built the set, the total would be much higher. Here’s a hint for anyone who would like to get involved in a theatre company. First, learn Carpentry. If, when applying to join said company, you let on that you know your way around wood and tools, they will snap you up like a throat lozenge at an auctioneers’ convention.

Acting in a production, even a small, local theatre gig, can be pretty stressful. Anyone who thinks that “just standing on a stage and reciting lines” isn’t high stress has never stood on that stage, in front of several hundred people, in complete silence, and wondered what the Hell is that thing you were supposed to be saying. Like folks in other high-stress activities, actors like to go to a local bar after a performance or rehearsal, nurse a beer, and swap stories about theatre. Subjects usually include “Impossible Directors,” “Actors Without a Clue,” and “Producers with Starry Eyes and Tight Fists.”

But one of the most favored categories is “Theatre Disasters.” These are not actual disasters like the theatre burning down or The President getting shot, but more on the order of the bizarre and hilarious. For example, there’s the story of the guy whose memory, in the middle of a scene, suddenly went blank. After a few moments of tedious silence, he turned and walked off stage, got in his car, and went home.

Here are three stories. All are true. I was not there for any of the three, but I know people who were and I got these tales from them.

The first happened in a production of the musical play Peter Pan. Because the show, despite being more than 60 years old, is still very popular,  several companies around the country specialize in providing all the necessary technical things that local theatres need to pull it off. As well as sets and costumes, they provide all the ropes, pulleys, and harnesses needed to fly Peter, Wendy, Michael, and John around the stage. And, of course, they hire out professional stagehands that are trained to know what line to pull exactly when.

In the last scene of the play, Wendy and her brothers are in bed in the nursery and Peter flies in through the window. He has come to see Wendy for the last time. They sing a final song and Peter whisks away. Since the musical role of Peter was originated by Mary Martin, it has become a tradition to cast an athletic young woman in the role of Peter Pan. This production was no exception. On this night, at the same time the two leads are singing “Don’t Say Goodbye” to each other, the backstage flying crew has slipped out the back door for a smoke. The stagehand who flies Peter suddenly realizes that the song is ending and in a few moments the actress playing Peter is going to throw herself out of the nursery window. He runs for the ropes. On stage, Peter nimbly hops up onto the windowsill. Backstage, the crewman grabs the rope and kicks off the brake. Peter crows like a rooster, leaps out the window and falls on her face on the stage outside. At the same moment, Wendy shoots up out of bed, flails into the middle of the room, swings around, and slams back into a wall.

In a noble gesture, the audience was charged no extra for the slapstick fun.

The second story was told to me by my friend Donna, who is the Artistic Director of The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and has been for many years. The Company produces three plays every summer, two by Shakespeare and one other, usually a classic, by another playwright. The play in question was Romeo and Juliet, and the scene was the swordfight between Mercutio and Tybalt. Romeo tries to break up the fight but instead hinders his cousin Mercutio. Tybalt’s sword slips under Romeo’s arm and skewers Mercutio. Then Tybalt and the other Capulets run away.

Let’s pause for a quick note about stage combat with swords. Swords made for stage duels all have flat, steel buttons welded to the pointy end and this button cannot puncture clothing or people. To make it seem as if it did, there is a device called a “blood bag.” It is a very flimsy plastic bag filled with chocolate syrup, corn syrup, and red food coloring. This is slipped into a special pocket sewn into the victim’s costume. When the button on the attacker’s sword hits the correct spot, the bag splits open, and very realistic-looking blood pours out and stains the victim’s shirt.

On this particular night, the button on Tybalt’s sword, instead of just breaking the bag, got entangled with the torn plastic. When the actor jerked the sword back, the bloody bag went flying across the stage, hit the proscenium, and slowly slid down, leaving a dripping, crimson track behind. Donna said it looked like Tybalt had ripped out Mercutio’s liver and flung it across the stage. Although the cast plunged ahead with the dialogue, the gasps and screams drowned out Mercutio saying, “…a scratch, ‘tis but a scratch,” before he keeled over and expired.

Finally, let’s turn to Chicago, my old pal Patti, and her story of the “starving pirates.”

There are several major universities in the Chicago area with active Theatre Departments. Every year, theatre graduates from Northwestern, Loyola, DePaul, and the University of Chicago walk out the front gates clutching their little mortarboards and wondering, “What the hell do I do now?” Many of them get together with some of their acting friends, chip in to rent a small storefront or a warehouse, paint the inside walls black, and start putting up shows. The nationally-famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company started just this way. There are, at last count, approximately 200 small theatre companies in Chicago. They include A Red Orchid Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, Remy Bummpo Theatre Company, Redtwist Theatre, The Conspirators, and TUTA Theatre. Very few of the spaces they are performing in have more than 50 seats, and because these spaces were originally built for far different purposes, their layouts can be very peculiar. I have been to a show where, to relieve yourself at Intermission, you had to get into a line that went across the stage, by the door to the former storage closet that now served as the actors’ dressing room, and down the hall to a single bathroom.

My friend Patti had been hired to direct a new show, a drama about pirates. I don’t remember the name of the show, but let’s call it The Last Cruise of the Frigate Matilda or “Tillie” for short. The space was the old gymnasium in Hull House at the Jane Addams complex. The room was tall and roughly square with a balcony on three sides. The advantages were that there was plenty of overhead space to hang lights and that although the seating was limited every seat in the house had a great view of the stage. Steppenwolf put up plays there in the 1980s before their big, new theatre was built. The disadvantages were that the gym was down a long hallway from the front door, and if you came down that hallway and didn’t turn left or right, you’d walk right onto the stage.

Tillie is about a band of pirates whose ship gets caught in a hurricane and though it still floats, it is too badly damaged to sail. There is a fight over the only longboat and the Captain, his lady love, and the First Mate are forced to stay aboard as the crew rows away. There is no food, no hope of rescue, and they prepare to die of starvation.

Some plays go like a dream in rehearsal and are ready to open with time to spare. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve only ever been involved with the other kind – the kind that attracts last-minute problems like bats to a beehive hairdo. And Tillie was one of those. Usually, the rehearsal schedule for the final week is Technical Rehearsal on Tuesday, Dress Rehearsal on Wednesday, and Opening Night (Also known as Critics’ Night) on Thursday. Rehearsals for Tillie had been such a tough slog that the cast and crew had had to show up Thursday morning for Tech, do their Dress that afternoon, then take two hours to rest and eat before opening the show at eight o’clock that night.

At six o’clock, Patti gathered the cast and crew together to give them the bad news.  To get the show ready to open, they would have to work for two more hours. There would be no time to rest, no time to eat dinner. As a consolation, Patti promised to order pizzas for everyone to be delivered to the building’s rear door at ten o’clock, just after the final curtain.

Why do people do live theatre? It’s surely not for the money and most of it is not that much fun. But you do what you are asked as well as you can because you never know when some magical Theatre Miracle will slip out from the shadows and grab you by the scruff of the neck. For the cast and crew of Tillie, it came in the middle of the first act. The show that had seemed to be doomed, the show that was held together only by prayer, baling wire, and duct tape was working! The timing was good, the energy was building, and the audience was being swept along. When a play is going well and the company and spectators are in sync, the feeling for everyone is wonderful, subtle, and almost transcendent.

Patti was one of those Directors who are unable to sit down and so roam the theatre, scribbling notes, checking sightlines, and taking the temperature of the audience. She was aware which seats had been reserved for critics and was happy to see that the people in them, while not grinning broadly, were not grimacing or rolling their eyes.

Things were still going well toward the end of the second and final act. The Captain, his Mistress, and the First Mate, in the advanced stages of starvation, were admitting to each other that there was no hope of survival and so began revealing the secrets they had kept inside for years. Patti was up in the far corner of the balcony when she heard something she was not expecting. It was a deep, male voice coming from a long way away.

“Hello? Is anybody here?”

Patti began to run. Patti was a big woman who was surprisingly strong and fast, especially when driven by terror. She was quickly out of the balcony door and flying past half a dozen classrooms to get to the stairs. She sprinted down the stairway, two steps at a time, listening to a pair of heavy boots clunk their way down the main hallway toward the stage. As she got to the bottom she was mentally damning the woman who answered the phone at the pizza place to the lowest ring of Hell for not making it clear that the delivery was to go to the back door of the building, not the front.

On stage, the First Mate seized a rope and dragged himself up to a standing position. As he addressed the other two, he pulled a knife out of his belt and held it up to his own throat.

“I have loved you both too deeply and for too long to watch you starve to death. There is not so much of this body left for you to make a meal on, but I give it to you freely.”

Before the Captain could say his next line, a stranger appeared on stage. He was holding nine flat, white cardboard boxes. Squinting in the lights, he yelled out.


A hand landed on his shoulder and dragged him back off stage.

The critics that were there gleefully filled their reviews with the story of how the starving pirates were rescued by a timely delivery of pizza pies and barely mentioned the play at all. Audiences afterward grew slimmer and slimmer. The play closed within a few weeks and as far as Patti knows, was never produced again.


Since lying, and its many forms, has lately become a national topic of conversation, I think this would be a good time to write down my take on the practice. So what is lying? For the rigid and strict, any deviation at all from the exact truth is a lie. Truth becomes so elusive as to be non-existent. Everything is a lie, differing only by intensity. Being a storyteller, I reject this persnickety view. My stories are, for the most part, true renditions of what happened, but I will admit to a bit of embroidery here and there just to smooth the flow. Our old Labrador, Lady, didn’t vent great clouds of malodorous gas all the time, only at a few inopportune moments. But which makes for a better story?

I learned to lie at an early age. At first, I wasn’t very good at it.

“Timmy, did you draw on the wall with a crayon?”

“No. I didn’t do it.”

“This is your coloring book and your crayons right next to the drawing on the wall.”

“Uh… Lewie did it.”

Needless to say, I got the swat on the butt, not Lewis. But every now and then, I’d get away with something. I’d swipe unauthorized Oreos out of Mom’s secret cookie stash or get the teacher to believe that I actually did lose my homework. And I was kind of shocked when there were no repercussions. I began to play with the beginning lessons of a life of crime – create an alibi, don’t leave clues, only take a little and it might not be noticed. If Mom was saving a big chunk of chocolate cake, don’t just hack off a piece, but neatly cut a small, horizontal portion out of the middle, then heal the wound with icing. It gives the “I didn’t take any. See, it looks just the same” deception some credibility.

I think the main reason I didn’t develop into a sneak thief and out-of-control liar was that I was pretty happy with what I had. I didn’t envy kids that had more than me and I didn’t look down on kids who had less. I did have a fear of physical violence and dreaded the day when some tough kid would “beat me up.” But I quickly found that it was easier to tell jokes and funny stories to turn around a bad situation than it was to BS my way out.

I got my first real lesson in the Power of the Lie when I was in high school. I was taking a Speech class and our teacher, Mrs. Mabe, was teaching us Debate. Teams of two students would take turns arguing for or against the National High School Debate Topic. In 1963 it was “Resolved: That the United States should promote a Common Market for the Western Hemisphere.” One team was Pro – meaning they were in favor of the proposal, and the other team was Con – they were against it. Not only did you have to construct valid arguments for your side, but support those arguments with quotes from experts. You were expected to root around in the bowels of the library to find these quotes, write them down neatly on 3 X 5 cards, and file them in a little box for easy access.

My Debate partner was a good friend named Steve. We were assigned the Pro side of the question and were given a week to prepare. One session in the library one afternoon showed us the futility of our efforts. Virtually no one – either expert or crackpot – believed at the time that a Western Hemisphere common market was a good idea. That weekend we drove down to Colorado along with some friends to drink 3.2 beer at the State Line Tavern. Under the gaze of a moth-eaten moose hanging on the wall, we formulated a desperate plan. We would lie! We scrounged up a pencil and paper and created four fictitious bureaucrats – two Americans, a Mexican, and a Brazilian – who were very much in favor of a common market for the Western Hemisphere.

In the ensuing debate, the two girls assigned the Con side put up a valiant fight, but we mopped the floor with them. How do you rebut the considered opinion of the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Trade? We were given A’s. But I couldn’t bring myself to feel good about the grade. I had lied and cheated and was getting thumped on the back for it. It was an oddly unpleasant feeling that I didn’t feel like ever repeating. I know there are some people in the world that get an extra thrill when they win this way. I am thankful that they are few.

My next close encounter with contrivance and fabrication came a few months later. A new kid had shown up at Laramie High School. We had a couple of classes together and fell into an easy friendship. His name was Jack and he was from somewhere on the East Coast. I liked him because he was smart, he had an easy laugh, and he was interested in a lot of the same things I was – girls, silly jokes, and the Beatles. As well as all that, he had, in his eighteen years, done some pretty amazing things. He had spent more than a month hitchhiking around Europe. On this trip, he’d lost his virginity to a thirty-five-year-old Italian woman in Rome. Back in the US, he had learned to sail his own little sailboat around the Chesapeake Bay. And he said he had an Uncle who lived near Toronto and trained racehorses. When the Wyoming winter had finally turned to spring and Graduation was nearing, Jack told me he’d written to his Uncle and asked him if he could use two more exercise boys for the horses that summer. And his Uncle had agreed. I was pretty excited about this and got concerned about fixing up my old ’57 Dodge so it could make the trip.

For extra money, I was working at an appliance store as a delivery boy after school. I couldn’t quite figure out why Jack was reluctant to set a date for the trip, but I believed him when he said he had to first work out some things at home for his father. Then one day an older fellow came into the store looking for an inexpensive TV and I overheard him use an unusual, but familiar to me, last name. I introduced myself and asked him if he was Jack’s father. He was, and we had a very interesting conversation. Jack, it turned out, had never been to Europe, had never owned a sailboat, and had no Uncle living in Canada.

How would you feel if you found out that someone you like and trust had been steadily lying to you for months? These were not minor fibs or small distortions to make a true story sound a little better, these were bald-faced lies. I felt totally betrayed. When I confronted Jack, I can’t remember if I was icy and judgmental or loud and angry, but I did make it clear that our friendship was at an end. Punch me in the nose, kick my dog, insult my Mother, but don’t make me feel like a fool. Some things can never be forgiven.

Since that time, with the watchfulness of the once-bitten, I examine even the most harmless statements for accuracy. If you post some accusatory political meme and get back a Snopes fact-check link as a comment, it has probably come from me. Or if you put up some lovely picture on the Internet only to be told that it is obviously Photoshopped, I’m most likely the guy that pointed that out. I pride myself on being the bane of crackpot conspiracy theorists. I may have lost a few friends because of it, but I will never again be anybody’s fool.

The Birthday Pie Tradition

Nearly twenty people had gathered at the house in Denver where I was living. It was my birthday and I had reluctantly agreed to celebrate. Some people adore their birthday and look forward to having their Special Day complete with cake, ice cream, and friends bearing gifts. I am not among them. If I have worked hard to achieve something, when I finally get there I’ll happily dance and sing and blow my own horn. But my birth was a shock to me, rude and unwanted. Here I was floating peacefully in warm amniotic fluid and the next thing I know I’ve been squeezed out into the cold and loud. Then some huge, faceless beast holds me up by the heels and slaps my butt. And I’m supposed to remember this with fondness?

But anyway, there we all were – laughing, drinking, telling stories, and eating far more sugar than was good for us – when someone yelled to me that I had a phone call. This was in the days when there was only one phone in the house and it hung on the wall in the hallway to the kitchen. I picked up the phone and said “hello” but the only sound was the buzz of the dial tone. An arm suddenly shot out at me from around the corner. It was holding a large cream pie.


The pie hit me in the face so hard that globs of filling sailed past my ears and speckled the baseboard on the far side of the dining room. As I wiped the stuff out of my eyes, some onlookers were worried that I had a bloody nose but it turned out to be the cherry that had been sitting on top of the pie was now smeared across my upper lip.

I should pause here to explain the tradition of the Birthday Pie.  When I was in my twenties, I began to wonder what being a grown-up man was all about and when, if ever, I was going to get there. I was no longer a boy, but what the hell was I? I decided it was time to cut loose all those childish things. One of the first to go was my birthday. Without making a big deal about it, I just mentally erased “my birthday” from that square on the calendar. I was hoping that it might start a trend – that all the guys who didn’t like having a birthday would all get together for a party every year on Super Bowl Sunday. We’d eat cake and ice cream, give each other joke gifts, drink beer, and watch the game.

I had managed to go for several years without a birthday and I was feeling rather pleased with myself. When the subject came up I’d say’ “Oh, next spring. It’s a long ways away.” So it was with a certain smugness that I drove, on my birthday, from Denver up to Cheyenne to visit some old friends. This get-together had spontaneously turned into a small party with other folks we knew showing up. I remember sitting in an armchair in the living room, discussing Paul Simon’s new album when Jean came sauntering out of the kitchen holding what looked like a small armload of laundry.

“Hey, Tim,” she said, “when exactly is your birthday anyway?”

“Oh it was a couple of months ago. I guess I missed it.”

“That’s not what we heard,” she said as she whipped a dish towel aside. She was holding a lemon meringue pie.

“Happy Birthday!” she yelled as she pushed the pie into my face. Everyone laughed uproariously except her four-year-old daughter Morgan, who started crying.

“It’s not nice to hit somebody with a pie on their birthday!” she wailed.

For several years after that, smacking the honoree with a pie became a necessary part of any birthday celebration in our group of friends. And, of course, one good pie deserves another. If you got one in the face on your birthday, it behooved you to retaliate. The only rule was that you had to wait until the thrower’s birthday to exact your revenge. This required some planning, subterfuge, and a little sneakiness, but the astonished look on your target’s face made it all worthwhile.

At one birthday, my friend Margo surreptitiously slipped a pie out of a secret flap in a gaily-wrapped gift box and smacked me in the face with it. A year and a half later, at her own birthday party, she was laughing with some partygoers in her kitchen when I slipped out of the shadows near the back door and put one in her ear.

It was Margo’s brother Mike who drilled me with that whipped-cream number with the cherry on top. The bizarre thing was that he and I were total strangers at the time. He was visiting his sister and she told him about my upcoming party and the pie-throwing thing. He couldn’t resist the opportunity. Just like me when I walked into Lou’s Sport Shop ten years before,* he just had to hit somebody in the face with a pie and only a relative stranger would do.

It was eight years later and eight hundred miles away when I sneaked into Mike’s birthday party and pushed a chocolate cream pie in his face. Revenge truly is a dish best served cold. And with a nice, crushed Oreo crust.

As for Jean, several years had passed for her and her husband, Jim. They had purchased a house on the north side of Cheyenne and were getting settled in July of 1979 when the first tornado to ever hit Cheyenne roared right through their living room. No one was home but the cat, which hid in the basement and survived, but little more than a couple of walls were left standing. The roof was in the back yard and the garage had disappeared completely. 

When the shock had subsided, they moved what little they had left into a FEMA-provided apartment and began the rebuilding process. Several of their friends who were in the building trades, myself included, were hired to help Jim put up a new house. We slept in the still-intact basement of the ruined house, but ate our meals and hung out in the apartment.

One day in September, Eric, who was doing the plumbing, mentioned that Jean’s birthday was coming up in two days. And I saw my chance to finally retaliate for that original lemon meringue pie that started it all.

“Wait a minute!” my bleeding-heart, do-gooder self spoke up. “After all she’s been through, are you seriously going to hit her with a pie?”

I gave that do-gooder self the Bronx cheer, pushed him into a mud puddle, and went off to buy a frozen vanilla custard pie. Two days later Jean was out buying groceries, the pie was well-thawed, and I was standing next to the front door of the apartment.

She walked in the door carrying grocery bags and saw nothing but onrushing pie. With a good, solid “Whupp!” the debt was paid.


*Go to the right-hand column and click on A Pie for Lou

Dirt Clods and Snowballs

When I was growing up in the little Wyoming town of Laramie, the kids in my neighborhood liked to throw things at each other. Some things were harmless – handfuls of leaves in the fall, grass clippings in the spring, cut weeds in the summer,  fluffy snowballs in the winter.  But for the most part, if whatever you had in your hand didn’t have the potential to do at least some harm, it was hardly worth throwing.  If you threw a slushball – a wet snowball with some hard chunks of ice in it – and were lucky enough to bounce it off your friend’s head and make him yell, you felt like Dead-Eye Dick for the rest of the day.

There was, however, a fine line, an unspoken agreement, not to throw anything specifically meant to wound. Rocks, for example, were never thrown. If you threw a rock at someone, it was an admission that although you wanted to hurt them, you didn’t have the courage to walk up close and throw a fist. The same went for pieces of metal, broken bricks, glass, and chunks of concrete. Tears were expected, even hoped for, but blood was not.

High on the list of ammunition-of-choice were dirt clods. Dirt clods are the by-product of digging a hole in Wyoming soil. Whether the digger was a nine-year-old boy excavating a foxhole in the vacant lot*, or a whole crew of men digging a foundation for a new house, when the hole was finished there would be a pile of dirt next to it. Some of the dirt was just that, dirt. But much of the soil still clung together in clumps. These, especially the ones that were between the size of a golf ball and a grapefruit, were God’s gift to boys intent on defending their side of the vacant lot from the kids on the other side.

An ideal throwing dirt clod has enough fine roots in it to hold it together in flight and embedded within it are enough small pebbles to sting if it hits its target.

Since our neighborhood was a relatively new one, there were new houses going up every year from the time the ground thawed in May until it got too cold to work the following December. And since we were in Wyoming, nearly every house had a full basement and for good reason. To keep your foundations from heaving, you had to put their footings below the deepest frost level. That required digging a hole at least six foot deep. As long as you were going that deep, you may as well go a couple of feet more, put in a full basement, and double your usable space. The result of this was a large pile of dirt sitting next to every foundation hole. This pile just sat there, beckoning to the neighborhood children, until the house was nearly built. Then some of the pile was used to backfill the foundation walls and the rest was hauled away.

In the meantime, after school and on weekends, that dirt pile was “Pork Chop Hill.” Two or three kids would start on each side of the pile and start climbing to the top, flinging dirt clods over the summit as they went, hoping to deter the other side from getting there first. Once you got near the top, you stopped throwing and started grabbing and shoving, hoping to make the other guy fall over and roll down the pile. “Pork Chop Hill” quickly became “King of the Hill” as teammates were forgotten and every boy was fighting only for himself.  Afterward, sporting various scrapes, nicks, and fat lips, we all walked home together. We’d stop periodically to empty the dirt out of our shoes and congratulate ourselves on our hand-to-hand combat skills.

In the winter, when the ground is frozen hard, dirt clods are forgotten and a young man’s thoughts turn inevitably to… snowballs.

Here’s an interesting question for you. If it had snowed in Galilee, would Jesus have gotten into snowball-throwing trouble with the kids his age? I don’t mean just lobbing a few softly-packed snowballs in somebody’s general direction, but pressing and shaping the snow into a compact sphere about the size of an apple, then winging it at a passing merchant, hoping to knock the turban off his head. Would He decline and risk being mocked by his friends? It’s hard to build a ministry when you’re known as Jesus the Weenie. I suppose He could throw and intentionally miss, but wouldn’t this entail a bit of out-of-character duplicity? I like to think He’d choose a more forthright approach by rearing back and drilling the old guy right in the ear, then falling to His knees to beg for forgiveness and absolution. Perhaps this is the reason God chose that part of the world to incarnate his only son – it doesn’t snow and the soil is too sandy to make a decent dirt clod.

On a winter morning in Wyoming, when a kid wakes up and finds it has snowed the night before, the first thing he wants to know is how much came down, and the second is how wet is it? If it is light and dry, it will be easy to shovel, but won’t pack into a snowball that’s worth half a horse patoot. On the other hand, a heavy, wet, early-spring snow can be easily pressed into a hard ball that would make Whitey Ford pink with envy. The drawback to that wet snow is that it will break your heart trying to shovel it. And shovel it you must.

I would bet that every young Wyoming father’s first thoughts as he looks lovingly down at his newborn son are, “I’ll only have to hang on eight or nine more years and then I’ll never have to shovel snow again.”

As the family’s designated snow remover, you may be able to put off shoveling that newly-fallen wet snow off the sidewalk for a few hours, but as soon as you get home from school the job will be waiting. All day long, passers-by will have been tromping the snow into slush.  This is not fun to shovel, but at least it moves off the concrete. If you duck out and leave it unshoveled, it will freeze to glare ice overnight that will have you fighting back tears of frustration as you chip away at it the next day.

Oops. I seem to have wandered off-topic. What were we talking about? Oh yeah – dirt clods. I think every neighborhood in America that has kids in it also has the Neighborhood Grouch. This is the guy who comes out on his front porch and yells, “Get off my lawn!” or who chains his dog up on the front porch on Halloween Night to keep the trick-or-treaters away. In our neighborhood, it was a woman named Fauniel Fellhauer**. She had, at some point, married a rancher named Tony.  But she was evidently miserable on the ranch and vocal enough about it that Tony built her a house in town. After that, they were rarely seen together. Although she did make a few appearances in a bathrobe out in front of her house yelling at kids, more often she was on the phone to the Police.  If the Laramie Police Department had a list of cranks who’d call them up at the drop of a propeller beanie, I’d be surprised if Fauniel Fellhauer’s name was not at or near the top.

It was a nice summer afternoon and Tommy Denniston and I were standing in the vacant lot pitching dirt clods at some empty pop bottles twenty or thirty feet away.  In our imaginations, they were Commies just peeking their heads up over the edge of their foxhole and getting ready to charge. Suddenly, Tommy pointed up in the sky and I froze in mid-windup. A large airplane was in the air high overhead. A rumor had gone around that Spring that if you saw such a plane it might be a Russian bomber preparing to drop the A-bomb on our little town.  The only way to know was to study the plane. If you saw a flash of light from its belly, then you had about fifteen seconds to live. After a few minutes, the plane had gone by. No flash, no mushroom cloud. If it was the Russians, then they had decided to avoid Laramie, fly on over the hill, and flatten Cheyenne. And who really cared about that.

During the pause, the bloodthirsty Commies had turned back into pop bottles and we had to either reset the game or come up with something new. Then I caught some movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned and stared.

“What is it?” Tommy asked.

“I think I saw something up on Fellhauer’s roof.”

After a few seconds, it moved again.

The vacant lot was on Kearney Avenue right in between our house at 1717 and the Fellhauer’s at 1713. The Fellhauer’s house was made of brick – two stories in the front and a single story in the back. The kitchen was in the back of the house on the vacant-lot side. All houses have various kinds and sizes of pipes that stick up through the roof. There are plumbing vents, water heater vents, furnace stacks, and, above the kitchen stove, the exhaust hood vent. Tony Fellhauer must have had trouble with the wind blowing cooking smoke back down the vent pipe because he had equipped their hood exhaust pipe with a wind-directional cap. It moved on the pipe whenever the wind changed a little. Of course, as a nine-year-old, I could grasp none of this. But I had recently seen Bill Holden in Submarine Command and I knew what I was looking at.

“It’s a periscope.”


“Up there!” I pointed. “She’s looking at us.”

As we studied the mechanism the wind shifted slightly and it was pointing directly at us.

I can’t remember if I yelled something like, “We’ve gotta knock it out!” or if we both just spontaneously started heaving dirt clods up on the Fellhauer’s roof. After a couple of minutes of this, the wind shifted again, the vent turned away, and we decided we needed some Kool-Aid. Twenty minutes later we were in my house setting up the Parcheesi board when my brother Lewis came in and said there was a Police car out in front of the Fellhauer’s. We went to the window and could see Fauniel out next to her house gesticulating angrily to a pair of policemen. There were dirt clods scattered around on her kitchen roof.

We decided it would be a good afternoon to stay inside.


  • *Go to the right-hand column and click Kick the Can.
  • **Go to the right-hand column and click The Rock and Roll Kid.

Video Symphony

We’ve been out of them for eight years now and I still don’t know how to refer to the first decade of this century. The “aughts?” or the “twenty-ohs?” or maybe the “zeros?” All these terms have one thing in common –they sound wrong.

Anyway, back then, about ‘04 or ’05, I was in my usual work position – down on my knees on someone’s kitchen floor – when I tried to stand up. And I couldn’t do it. My knees were not willing to comply. I had to use the line of cabinets I had just installed as a kind of monkey bars in order to pull myself up to my feet.  That was when I started thinking that it was time to look for a new occupation. But what?

In my spare time, I had been writing screenplays – as was every other person in LA. Despite a few minor successes, a couple of free options here and a Producer/Director who liked my work there, nothing was really happening. So even though I liked writing (and, obviously, I still do) I was not going to make a living with a comfy chair and a word processor.

So for months my wife and I made lists, did research, and talked it over. As we did so, I continued to work in people’s kitchens and my knees kept reminding me that my days of crawling into cabinets were numbered. The ironic thing was that as the certainty of the end grew larger, I was getting better at the job. People were saying that they didn’t want anyone working in their kitchen but me and even the term “Master Carpenter” was being thrown around. Even though I had raised my rates a couple of times, I was still booking six weeks to two months out. Of course, these were the heady days before the Great Recession dropped out of the sky and flattened everybody in the housing business.

In the midst of all this, I made my decision. I would learn to be a Video Editor. This job seemed like it was custom-made for me. It was a sit-down job that required a lot of computer skills (which I didn’t have but could learn) and a generous helping of creativity (which I flattered myself that I already possessed). And being so right-brained that it’s surprising I don’t list to starboard when I walk, it was not surprising that I was attracted to such a visual skill.

“Age?” said the salesman in answer to my question, “No, it’s really not a problem. In other areas of the business, yes it’s a factor, but in the Editor’s chair they like to see somebody older, somebody with the calm and steady attitude you only get from years of experience.”  With me being nearly sixty at the time, this was cream for the cat.

We had found several trade schools that taught Video Editing. This one, Video Symphony, was the closest to home. It was also, bigger, flashier, and more self-assured than their competitors. It had been setup as a high-end training facility while the other places we looked at seemed more like, ”Yeah, we put in a school in the back room.” Video Symphony had more than eighty computer workstations divided among eight large classrooms. When they told me that they had set up a program dedicated to working people and were offering classes on evenings and weekends, I was patting my pockets for a pen.

Thirty thousand dollars in school loans was, admittedly, a huge pill to ask my wife to swallow. I guess she bought my argument that once I had a job as an editor I’d be bringing in enough money that we could make the payments on the loans and still not have to move into a cardboard box under the underpass. Either that or she looked into my big, pleading eyes and just couldn’t say no.

Once again, I became a student. When you’re sixty and going back to school, your approach is very different. When you look speculatively a nicely-tanned, attractive female classmate, it’s only because you’re wondering if she understood that part about “drop frame rates.” Instead of wondering if you can skip a class without missing too much, you’re wondering when you can come and do some extra hours on a workstation just so you can keep up with some of the young hotshots in your class.

The principal software that Video Symphony trained people on was Avid. At the time, and probably today, 98% of studio feature films are cut on Avid. Ditto with high-end network television. It’s a big, expensive software package that will only run on big, expensive computer work stations. We also learned Final Cut Pro, but at Video Symphony it was treated as the red-headed stepson of Post Production Software.

Editing, to me, was just another form of construction. When one begins to build a house, all around the lot there are piles of boards, plywood, nails, siding roofing materials, windows, doors, and a myriad of other things. The builder cuts boards to the exact length needed, attaches them together, stands them up in the proper place, and moves on. An Editor is, essentially, doing the same thing. Every scene has been filmed or videoed, in its entirety, four or five times. All from different angles. The Editor takes a moment from here at this angle and a moment from there at that angle tweaks them back and forth to get both the audio and the video to work seamlessly, then goes on to the next set of moments.  One of the main differences is that, in construction, you don’t have the Architect and the Interior Designer sitting on a comfortable couch right behind you and watching you work. “Can we see this room again only with that wall three inches longer, and this window opening six inches to the left.”

One thing the school, the teachers, and a little bit down the road, the students had to contend with was the constant innovation of technology.  When I began in 2006, for example, everything arrived in the editing room on tape cassettes. The higher the quality of the show, the bigger the tape cassettes got, not to mention the size and price of the tape decks needed to capture all the video and sound. We were taught, retaught, and drilled on the workflow to digitize those tapes and get them into the computer’s memory and the Avid’s usable files. By the time I’d completed and passed ingestion of taped media, production houses and studios were trading in their old tape cameras for ones that shot on hard drive. Within six months of my graduation in 2009, tapes and tape decks were as out-of-date as flip phones and CRT monitors.

I had been in the school for a couple of years before someone finally came out and told us the truth. Graduates of Video Symphony were not being hired directly out of school as Editors. The few that were actually editing were working on no-budget indie productions for “exposure.” The paying jobs that we were eligible for was Assistant Editor.

Going back to our Construction analogy, the Builder has minions working for him that cut, code, and stack all the raw materials and get everything ready so when he walks onto the job site he can start whacking things together immediately. The Editor has Assistant Editors that spend all night ingesting all the dailies into the Computer’s memory, going through them and throwing out all the blown takes, then precisely coding each take at each angle and ingesting these marked clips into the Avid’s files, ready for cutting. A one-hour show might need five to seven hours of raw footage in clips. Then the next day the Editor saunters in, cracks his knuckles, and begins putting the show together.

During my last year of school, 2008-09, I had taken on as many small freelance editing jobs as I could squeeze in. The bottom had fallen out of the kitchen remodeling business and I had more free time than I wanted so I did what I could to build up my resume. Then I went looking for work.

After I had been sending out resumes for only a couple of weeks, I got a request for an interview with a small production house that was looking for Assistant Editors. I interviewed with the boss and, with a big grin and a handshake, he offered me a one-month Internship. I would work there for free for a month, and after that, if they liked my work, they would pay me fifteen dollars an hour. This was about what restaurants were paying experienced dishwashers.

I turned it down. This offer had come so quickly, I told myself; surely others that were a little more reasonable would soon follow. Au contraire, mon frère. This would turnout to be the closest I ever got to a regular Post Production job.

In hindsight, I had three things going against me; any one of which could have, by itself, swamped my canoe. Together they were like taking a torpedo amidships just below the water line. One was the Recession. Everyone was feeling the pinch, even the entertainment industry. Financiers and Producers were suddenly looking for ways to save money by downsizing. The second blow was the advent of Final Cut Pro. This software was relatively inexpensive, ran on any regular computer, was fairly easy to learn, and could do almost everything Avid could do. Kids across the country were buying a copy of FCP, a laptop, and an instruction book. Shortly thereafter, hordes of them began showing up in LA willing to work for minimum wage. The third, and maybe the biggest blow, was that most people in the Los Angeles area who were looking for an Assistant Editor were men or women in their thirties. And nobody wants to hire their Dad to be their assistant. Somehow, yelling out, “Hey, run down to craft services and get me a cup of coffee and a bagel, wouldja? And this time don’t put so much damned sugar in it!” at a nice old guy with gray hair just makes the yeller look and feel like a jerk.

After many months of banging my head against that particular wall, I threw in the towel, stopped mixing my metaphors, and went back to the kitchen cabinet trade. People who needed their old cabinets repaired because they could not afford new ones began calling. It wasn’t much, but I was able to pay a few bills and start chipping away at those ridiculous school loans. With luck, ibuprofen, and steroid injections, I was able to make my knees last for another seven years until I could finally retire.

Brother Donald

It is the solemn duty of every older brother to amuse himself by making his younger brother’s life a living hell – or at least as close to that as possible without running afoul of parental concern.  In other words – don’t leave any marks or bruises. For example, if you hold your little brother down and tickle him until he turns funny colors, use your fingertips on his rib cage and not your knuckles.

My little brother Donald is, and was, a pretty even-tempered guy with a sunny disposition and he managed to run this gauntlet of older-brother cruelty relatively unscathed. In fact, I think this positive attitude was probably the best defense for him. The usual older-brother games like “quit hitting yourself” and “follow our pal” rarely resulted in the hoped-for and very rewarding angry blow-up. Don usually enjoyed the attention more than he hated the frustration.

The one truly exploitable area in Donald’s personality was his tendency to believe anything his older brothers told him. We were, after all, his closest blood relations. We wouldn’t be so mean as to tell him outrageous stories and get him to fall for them just for our own entertainment, would we? Well of course we would.

Our pranks on Don were sometimes verbal and at other times they were physical with just enough story to get him to buy in. For example:

“Hey Don, we saw this neat trick on the Ed Sullivan show.It’s a way to make this egg disappear. But we need an assistant. You want to help us?”


“Great. Get behind this door so nobody can see you. Now put your index finger and thumb through the crack.”

“You’re not going to slam the door on my fingers, are you?”

“No. We promise we won’t do that. So put your fingers through… good. Now I’m going to secretly hand you the egg, you’ll pull it through, and the audience won’t know what happened. Ready? Allikazing, Allikazam! And the egg is gone! Don? You were supposed to pull it through.”

“It won’t fit. It’s too big.”

”Oh I see. Well, don’t drop it, whatever you do. Mom will have a fit. We’re going to go into the kitchen and try to figure it out.”

Fifteen minutes later, Don’s fingers are cramping and we’re in the kitchen saying loudly, “Oh look! Chocolate cake!”

This sort of ploy, with variations, worked equally well with an empty aluminum pie tin held against the ceiling with a broom (“Here, hold this and don’t drop it. There’s an angry black widow spider in there”) and a funnel stuck into his belt (“Betcha can’t let this penny slide off the end of your nose so it drops right into the funnel”). While he is concentrating on the penny he can’t see the pitcher of warm water that is being poured into the funnel).

When he was a few years older, there was a game that he was always eager to play, despite the fact that he never won. It was “Who Can Escape.” We’d get lengths of clothesline cord, rope, or whatever was handy and first he would try to tie me up, then I would escape. Then it was my turn to tie him up and because I was better at knots than he was, he could never escape. How he didn’t realize beforehand that he would then be tickled, taunted, or have imaginary bugs put down the neck of his shirt I’ll never know.

One summer day he came up to me with a length of cord in his hand and a desire to tie me up to the point of helplessness burning in his eyes. I suggested we go outside on the lawn. Although he did his best, it only took me about five minutes to wriggle out of the ropes. Then it was his turn.Despite the fact that I was a Cub Scout dropout, I did learn how to tie a square knot and a bowline. In a few minutes I had him trussed up like a goose.

“Wait a sec,” I said. “There’s one more thing.”

I picked up the sprinkler hose from the other side of the lawn, dragged it over and wrapped him up in it. A sprinkler hose is a twenty-five foot, flattened, plastic tube with pin-holes in it every few inches.

“Okay,” I announced, “escape!”

While he struggled, I mosied over to the water spigot and turned it on full. Brother Donald suddenly became a writhing, squealing water fountain. I admit, I laughed so hard I nearly wet my pants. The chewing-out I got from my mother for soaking Donald was well-deserved and totally worth it.

The other brand of tomfoolery we enjoyed (and he didn’t) was to tell him a ridiculous lie and get him to believe it. One evening, for example, Lewis and I sauntered into his room just as he was getting ready for bed.

“Hey, Don, are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Oh, good. ‘Cause we’ve heard there’s a rare disease going around and you’ve been looking kinda pale.”

“I have?”

“It’s probably nothing. Unless you can see little red blood veins around the edges of your eyeball.”

“Don runs to the bathroom to check. “Oh no.”

“You weren’t playing in the park today were you?”

“I was looking for four-leaf clovers.”

“Uh-oh. There were tsetse flies infesting the park today.They’re so small you can hardly see them and you don’t even feel it when they bite, but they can give you Sleeping Sickness.”

“Sleeping Sickness?”

“If you have it and you fall asleep, you might sleep for days. You might not wake up for weeks! Quick, pull up the legs of your pajamas. Oooh noo! Look. There’s the bite mark!”

What can I do? I don’t want to have sleeping sickness.”

“The only thing you can do is to stay awake. If you don’t go to sleep, it can’t get you.”

When I went to bed a couple of hours later, Don was still sitting up in bed, yawning and squinting, reading comic books, trying desperately to keep himself awake.

When Lewis and came into the room the next morning he was fast asleep, sprawled on top of a couple of comic books that had been under him when he fell over.

“Wake up, Don, wake up!” we shouted as we gave him a good shaking.

“Huh? What…?”

“Oh, thank God you’re finally awake. You’ve been asleep for two weeks! You slept right through Valentine’s Day!”

Don ran to Mom, in tears, to see if anyone saved his valentines for him.  Once again, we were in trouble.

Several months later, the family was planning to take a trip to see relatives in Southern California. Donald was so excited to go to Disneyland that he could not stop talking about it. Not having learned our lesson at all, Lewis and I barged into his room early on the morning we were to leave.

“Don, Don, wake up! We just heard on the radio that Disneyland has burned to the ground!”

My poor mother. Not only was she in the midst of last-minute packing, she had to deal with a crying five year-old. And two giggling older brothers.

Several years later, when Donald was in second grade, Lewis and I were eating breakfast when Don came upstairs. He was still in his pajamas and looking sleepy. I don’t remember if we had planned something in advance or we were just winging it, but one of us said, “Why aren’t you in school?”

“There isn’t any school on Saturday.”

“Well it’s Friday. Saturday is tomorrow,” Lewis said as he went to the wall calendar and tapped it. “See? Friday.”

Since Donald had not yet learned how to read a calendar, he could only accept that as being the truth.

He was beginning to look worried as he asked, “So how come you guys aren’t in school?”

“The Junior High is having teacher conferences,” I lied glibly. “We have the day off.”

“Oh no. What am I gonna do?”

“I guess you’d better get dressed as fast as you can and run over there.  Maybe your teacher will let you into class. Who is your teacher by the way?”

“Mrs. Kettlehut.”

Lewis and I looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh.”

Within minutes Don was dressed and running out the door with the mittens that were clipped to his coat sleeves and his untied shoe-laces fluttering in the breeze. Since Beitel School was only a block away, Lewis and I had about twenty minutes to giggle into our cereal bowls before the front door opened and a downhearted and sniffling Donald entered.

“What happened?” we asked. “Wouldn’t they let you in?”

“The doors were all locked. I went around the building to my classroom and looked in the windows, but nobody was there. So I thought they must have gone to the gym. I put my ear to the gym door and I could hear them singing in there.”

My New (Old) Project

In 1981, my older brother Lewis was killed in a car wreck. He and a friend had loaded their few possessions into a small pickup truck and began the drive to Colorado. They had put a down payment on a house in Colorado Springs and were looking forward to moving in. Another fellow named Jack who was traveling east had come along to help with gas and driving. With three guys sharing driving they decided to go straight through without stopping. In the early morning hours, Jack was at the wheel and he fell asleep. The truck went off the road, flipped over several times and Lewis, not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown out.

The news devastated my mother. She loved all of her sons equally but Lewis had heart and sincerity that touched everyone. Different people process grief in different ways and sometimes it takes a long time. But Mom just couldn’t seem to get past it. A gray depression had settled in. She couldn’t sleep, didn’t feel like eating, and she lost weight. It was not the loss of her son that she questioned; it was why the grief of it wouldn’t lessen. She was always a “there’s got to be a reason for this” type of person and she began to look for explanations. She read “Life after Life,” the classic exploration of long-tunnel-white-light near-death experiences that set forth the proposition that death was not an ending, more of a waystation on a continuing path. That book gave her some comfort.

From there, she burrowed deeper into metaphysical books, looking for answers. Being more a person of science rather than faith, she steered away from the “Crystals and Angels” side of the field and concentrated on the writings of traditionally educated, competent experts who were pulling back the dark curtains of death and existence and taking a look behind. I do not know the source of the information or even the name of the practitioner, but she read of a trained psychologist in San Francisco who was having great success in treating patients by taking them back in time, through hypnosis, to re-experience a past life. Frequently she and the patient would find a traumatic event that is still causing suffering in this present life.

When I asked Mom if she’d read of any examples, this is the story she told me. The patient was a man with crippling acrophobia. His fear of heights was so overpowering that he couldn’t go up more than two or three floors in any building. A glimpse out a window would drop him, shaking, to his knees. The Psychologist took him back to a life in which he was a porter in the Andes. One day he and two other porters had to cross an old, rope and stick bridge that spanned an almost bottomless gorge. With heavyweight packs balanced on their heads and shoulders, the three men started across. They were halfway to the other side when the ropes broke. They dropped to their deaths on the rocks below.  The Psychologist had the man remove himself from the violent emotions of it and describe, calmly, his own death. He told her that the fear of the death that awaited him was so strong that he was dead before he even hit the ground. After these sessions, the man improved remarkably. He still had a healthy respect for heights, but he could go up in high buildings or use low-to-medium sized ladders. The understanding of “why” can be a powerful force for dealing with an abnormal mental reaction.

“Since I can find no reason for this unending pall of sorrow in this life,” Mom reasoned, “perhaps it has its roots in another life.” She called the psychologist’s office in San Francisco and made an appointment.

The psychologist gave Mom some tools to deal with her grief, gave her a taste of past-life regression, then told Mom that a young man who had recently begun practicing in Colorado Springs had been trained by her to guide past-life experiences through hypnosis. Once Mom was back at home she started going to this young man several times a week. With his guidance, she began to piece together a life in which she, in the body of an English merchant, had abandoned and lost a child that would eventually be reborn as her son, Lewis. In reaction to that abandonment, the entity inside her – she refers to it as her “inner mind” – vowed to never lose this child again. The young man guiding her was able to convince the Inner Mind that there was no guilt and that it was not to blame for the loss of Lewis. The dark fog of depression and grief that had surrounded my mother for so long quickly disappeared.

Along the way, Mom had had several intriguing glimpses of other lives and was convinced there were many more waiting to be explored. She had learned so much about herself and this new way of looking at the flow of life that she very much wanted to continue. Not being a wealthy woman, she could not afford to keep paying for the young analyst’s help. In solving this problem, she created a system of self-hypnosis that utilized a simple cassette recorder. Using this system she could put herself into trance and give herself the suggestions that allowed her to spend four or five evenings a week for the next eleven years carefully delving into and examining one past life after another. As she went forward, she remembered to keep detailed notes of each session.

After reconstructing forty or fifty of her past lives and filling up a stack of loose-leaf binders with notes, she decided to write a book. She got out her old IBM Selectric, plugged it in, and began to type. By then (early 90’s) desktop computers with built-in word processors were commonplace, but she was a bit computer-phobic and was convinced that the clickety-clack of typewriter keys was the sound of “real writing.”

She selected about twenty of the most dramatic and interesting of her lives and told the story of each of them as a kind of mystery tale – what clues she originally found, how she began to flesh out the story, how her inner mind, being sensitive and emotional, would sometimes refuse to answer her questions or show her important details, and how she was finally able to discover the truths that explained everything.

Once she was done, she had to retype the entire manuscript. Without a computerized word processor, if you find you have to rewrite a few sentences, juggle a couple of paragraphs, or correct the odd spelling or grammar error, you have to retype the whole damned thing. When she finished that process she sent out copies of the book to agents and publishers. There was some interest, an agent took the manuscript on provisionally, but the reactions were pretty much variations on a theme: “This has some fascinating and interesting stuff, but it needs some reworking from the ground up and we don’t think the audience for this is big enough to justify the expense.” In the end, the manuscript was never picked up.

After some careful self-examination, Mom realized that the purpose of her explorations had always been self-discovery and healing. The desire to publish was, being brutally honest with herself, nothing more than a desire for validation. “Since I am in a whole different place than I was when I started,” she reasoned, “what more validation do I need? I am healthier, happier, and more at peace with myself and the world than I ever was before I started this. I am content.”

And with that, she bundled up her notebooks and manuscripts, put them on a shelf, and never opened them again.

I was the only one of her sons that was really interested in the project. She had been sending me chapters to read as she finished them. I would read them and give her strong encouragement, which she appreciated, and a few suggestions for changes, which she didn’t. After a lifetime of being an artist, she had learned to ignore opinions and advice from well-meaning family and friends. Art is a creative medium that does not lend itself to feedback and editing. It is as pure a reflection of the skills and thoughts of a single artist as anything in existence. My mother viewed her writing the same way.  To lessen the burden of re-typing the whole book, she hired a young woman to do the typing for her. When she realized that her typist was correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar as she went, Mom angrily sacked her and took back the manuscript to finish herself.

Somewhere around 1998, I received a large package from my mother. Inside I found a note that read: “I’m sure I will never find the time or desire to work on this again. I give it all to you, to do with as you see fit.” Along with the note were several boxes containing different versions of her book. I packed the boxes away, telling myself that someday I would go through them to see what might be done Then I would forget about their existence until the next time we moved. So from Venice, California, to Sylmar, California, to Prescott, Arizona, and finally here to Cottonwood, Mom’s book followed us along collecting dust and promises of “someday…”

Last summer someday finally arrived. I had finished my novel  Headfirst*, it was being reviewed by an Editor, and I needed something to do to counterbalance writing these blog stories. After I spent a fruitless afternoon clambering around in the piles of boxes in our storage unit, my wife took a stepladder into a closet in our apartment and pulled Mom’s book off a high shelf.

I worked out a rough plan to get the book ready in an electronic environment that did not exist twenty-five years ago. Phase One would be to scan each page, put it through an Optical Character Recognition program, then paste the result in Microsoft Word and re-do the formatting and spacing. Then on to the next page.  After nearly 300 pages, I now have the first draft. I wouldn’t have thought it would take more than three months, but here we are.

Phase Two will be the heavy rewrite phase. There are a lot of passages that aren’t quite clear, segues to write, and whole chapters that will need a full refurbish. The final chapter – “How To Do It Yourself” – involved using a cassette recorder. To keep things up to date, I will have to show how you can give yourself the necessary instructions using an iPhone, Android phone, or tablet.

When, in a few months, I have a second draft, I will sendcopies out to Beta readers for notes and feedback. (If you are interested inbeing a Beta reader on this project, please send me an email) Then I will gothrough it once again with the proverbial “fine tooth comb.” At the end of thisPhase Three, I will have to start figuring out the best way to take the beastto market.


*Go to the right-hand column and click Boscamp

Tales from the Woodbutcher’s Trade

There are several ways to learn the skill of Carpentry. One might involve having a father who swings a hammer for a living. You start by sweeping up and carrying boards around the job site after school.  Eventually, if you don’t run off to join a punk band, you’ll learn the rudiments of the trade.  Or you can join the Carpenters Union (you’ll need a Sponsor) and be an apprentice for a number of years. If you have the cash or are willing to go into debt, you can find a Trade School that’ll teach you the basics.

Or you can do what I did. I read a couple of books on building, got myself a used tool belt and filled it up with various hand tools, and then bought a power saw and taught myself to use it. I finally walked onto a construction site in Denver with a fictitious resume and applied for a job. It took them a few days to figure out I was lying and to fire me. But in the meantime, I had been keeping my eyes open and learning all I could. By the second or third try, the Foreman decided, however reluctantly, to let me stay and I spent the next forty years cutting up chunks of wood and nailing them back together.

Over the years I worked as an employee for a few small outfits and for a few big commercial companies, but most of the time I worked by myself as a freelance contractor. I’ve partnered a few times, the most notable being in Iowa where Kelly, Glenn, and I formed our own construction company and called it “Pigs in Space Construction.” Kelly and I came up with the name a few years earlier when we were working together building balconies on an apartment complex in Denver.  One day we had just been laughing about a segment on The Muppet Show called Pigs in Space. I climbed up on a temporary handrail to grab an electric cord when the rail broke underneath me and I dropped about fifteen feet into a mudhole. Kelly leaned out over the edge of the deck and intoned, “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  Three days later, he was climbing a homemade ladder when his foot slipped between the rungs and he dropped head first into a similar mudhole. This time I had the honor – “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  By the time we got together in Iowa and added Glenn, the name was a foregone conclusion.

Construction partnerships have about the same shelf-life as rock ‘n’ roll bands, and a few years later when Pigs in Space had faded into legend, I moved to Chicago. I got a job doing finish work for what was probably the only gay-owned construction company in the city. Tad had gotten his degree in veterinary science, but decided to give up his practice when a milk cow took a couple of casual sideways steps and crushed his assistant up against a barn wall, breaking two ribs. Since Tad was allergic to cats, he decided to go into upscale remodeling and he quickly found his services were in high demand in the gay community. I think his customers were relieved not to have to take down their favorite artworks and “butch” up the place because the carpenters were coming over.

I was comfortable working in that environment because I already had several gay friends who seemed to take special pleasure in telling me the most perverse stories and then laughing at my reaction.* Over the course of my career, I worked for many different types and varieties of people, but my favorites were gay couples and black people.

Gay couples were appreciative, didn’t care so much about price as long as it looked good, and –  I’ll take the risk of stumbling over the line into stereotypes here –  they invariably had great taste. The only problems I ever had were when each one of a couple thought that they had a better eye than their partner. One would say, “You know those little medallion things on the mantelpiece that Kevin sketched up? Do you mind kind of forgetting to put them on?” Then Kevin would take me aside and say, “Don’t forget the medallions on the mantelpiece, okay?” I had to ask Tad to make them sit down and talk to each other.

I spent fifteen of the twenty years I was in Los Angeles installing kitchen cabinets. There was, and still is, a business in Culver City called The Kitchen Store. They will take your kitchen measurements and design an entire kitchen for you and order the cabinets. They do not have in-store installers, instead they hand you a business card for an independent installer and say, “We recommend you call this guy to install your new cabinets. He’s bonded, insured, licensed, and has done a lot of work with us.” For those fifteen years, I was one of the six or seven guys whose card was handed out.

Unlike some of the other installers, I was always pleased to be referred to a black family. I did have a few bad experiences with customers (we’ll get to some of those in a bit), but never with a person of color. The first day or two on one of these jobs was always a little stiff and formal but once the ice was broken, I became family.  “Would you like something to drink? Some sweet tea or something?” and “My mama and I are going to watch Judge Judy. Let us know if the volume is too high. Or take a break and come and watch. This girl took care of her boyfriend’s dog for a week, shaved it like it was a poodle or something,  and now she won’t give it back.”

Probably my favorite kitchen installation for a black family was in a large house in Carson, California. Mrs. Conrad’s husband had passed away five years before and left her enough money to buy the house. She needed a large one because she had a large family. There were adult children, teenagers, friends of the teenagers and grandchildren going constantly in and out. My assistant Jon and I were there for two weeks and we were never sure how many people actually lived there. But it was a jolly crew that would wander into the kitchen to swap jokes, make fun of the music we listened to (jazz), or tell on a little brother who’d done something heinous. Mrs. Conrad was my favorite. She’d bring in her friends in to watch us work and they’d tut-tut, and nod their heads, and tell us how nice it looked.

One day we came to work and Mrs. Conrad was angry and yelling at the kids. Evidently, there had been some kind of rebellion earlier and choice words and punishments were being handed out.  Afterward, she came into the kitchen to apologize for the uproar.

“I blame my husband,” she said with some heat. “He just up and died on me, leaving me all these mouthy kids to deal with. Sometimes it makes me so mad I just want to dig him up and kill him again!”

Most of my customers were middle-aged, white, housewives whose husbands had said, “Go ahead and do whatever you like, just don’t spend too much.” There were a few outliers like the college roommates  whose dog had chewed the corners off every reachable cabinet in the kitchen and asked me “Can you fix it so we can get our deposit back?” My answer: “No.”

But the banes of my existence were young, A-type, businessmen on the rise. When I went to a job and met one of these, I knew it was going to be trouble. Guys like this are very status-aware. They want to make sure I knew whose territory it was by metaphorically peeing on every post and rock around the perimeter. I could accept this if the fellow knew anything about carpentry or construction, but he usually did not. One guy, for instance, called me up after the job was complete and demanded that I drop everything and come over to correct some mistakes. After making me wait for nearly an hour while he talked on the phone, he finally told me what the problem was – he had discovered, behind a roll-out drawer in the back of a cabinet, a pile of sawdust.  It took me all of three minutes to vacuum it up.

And then there was Ralph. Ralph was a “Licensed” Contractor. I use the quotes because of the California system of granting licenses to building contractors. To get a license one must take an extensive test to, ostensibly, weed out those people who don’t know which end of the nail to hit with a hammer. In response, there arose a cottage industry of “Construction License Schools.” For several hundred dollars you go to a two-day class. They pass out sheets of paper that list all the questions that will appear on the tests along with the correct answers. The “student” spends the next two days memorizing. Hence, we have General Contractors like Ralph. He was not only clueless but had a tender ego that wouldn’t allow him to admit he was clueless.

So it was Ralph who got concerned that during an earthquake the island cabinets might tear loose from the screws I was using to anchor them and hop around the room. He insisted that I put eight-inch lag bolts through the bottoms of the cabinets and into the floor joist below. I told him that if there was ever an earthquake with that much force, the customers were going to have a much bigger problems than their island cabinets hopping around the floor. But he insisted and I put in the lag bolts. On other points, I just couldn’t let him have his way. He was disturbed that when he opened the drawers and looked at the inside of the drawer face, there were two different colors of screws – the screws that held on the outer face were brass-colored and the screws that held on the handles were chrome. He was also sure that the system I used to attach the wall cabinets to the wall was not strong enough and the cabinets would someday fall.

A couple of months after finishing the job, I got a phone call from Ralph. “Just as I predicted,” he said, “the cabinets are falling off the wall. You have to go and fix them.”

The next day I dropped by the house and asked to look at the kitchen. I was proud to see how nice it looked with all the finishing details. All the wall cabinets were tight to the wall in exactly the places I had installed them. The only problem was that when I had installed the crown molding, I had snugged it up against the ceiling. Now there was nearly a ½” gap that ran all the way around the room. I swiped a couple of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, drove home, and that evening called Ralph.

“Tell me, Raph,” I said. “You bought the two by twelves  that your guys used to frame the kitchen ceiling from Home Depot, right?”

He said he had.

“The big framing lumber they sell is still green – heavy with moisture. Once installed, the joists dry out and as they do, they shrink. My cabinets are exactly where I put them, the shrinking joists just pulled the sheetrock up and away from them. That kitchen ceiling is now about half an inch higher than it was.”

After recommending that he wait for a few more months for the framing to finish drying out, then hire a plasterer to fill the gap, I hung up and then grinned at my phone feeling just as smug as smug could be.


*Look at the right-hand column and click “Boscamp.”

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Kid

When we’re young, we want a lot of things for ourselves. As we age we realize the absurdity of those desires one after another and let them go. I had to come to grips with the knowledge that I would never own a pair of spring shoes that would enable me to leap over the garage. It also became obvious that a boy with a hefty fear of heights would not ever become a jet pilot. But there is one desire I hung onto for years. Despite repeatedly falling on my face, I always thought that someday I could be a good musician. Not a “great” musician, that would be out of the question, just “good” or even “passable.” There were only a few minor problems with this – my manual dexterity wasn’t very good, I had little or no sense of rhythm, and I couldn’t bring myself to practice.

On the other side of the vacant lot* from our house stood the large brick house of Fauniel Fellhauer. She was a piano teacher. Her house had been designed with piano instruction in mind with a large living room – perfect for recitals. It had a raised platform at one end on which stood a grand piano. There were two rehearsal rooms with upright pianos in the basement. When I was seven my mother enrolled me in piano classes. After three or four months of very slow progress, Ms. Fellhauer came down to a practice room to see how I was doing and found me asleep on the floor behind the piano. It was decided that I needed a little more maturity before I could try it again.

After that, there were minor flirtations with the saxophone (that lasted about two weeks) and the ukulele (a month or so) before I came face-to-face with the upright double bass. And that was because of 8th Grade gym class. The rule in gym class was that you first had to climb a twenty-foot rope to the top before you could play basketball or volleyball. Every class became four other nerds and I taking turns hanging from the damned rope while we grunted and struggled to climb it. Meanwhile, all the other kids were having fun and snickering at us. Then I heard that if you joined the school orchestra, you could do that instead of gym class. My only question was, “where do I sign up?”

I had several reasons for choosing the bass as my instrument. I liked that deep sound that an upright bass makes, you can kind of lean on it as you play, and it doesn’t require a lot of nimble finger work. While the violin is flying through some multi-sixteenth-note arpeggio, the bass has to produce a single, “zoooom”. When I realized that the bass was so big I couldn’t take it home to practice (darn!) I was sold.

Over the next year and a half, I learned to play the upright bass. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a Junior High School orchestra and I was no worse than anyone else. If you’ve never heard a Junior High School orchestra play, and if you like things that are simultaneously painful and hilarious, by all means, go. At the end of the school year, I was promoted to the new Laramie Senior High School on the other side of town. They had an orchestra, but being a member no longer excused one from gym class. So I gave up the bass and went back to standing with the other nerds and weaklings while everybody else played basketball and other sports. Instead of having to climb a rope, we were required to climb a peg board.

I might never have gotten another swing at being a musician if it hadn’t been for the machinations of my older brother Chuck and his friends Dean and Gary. Dean played drums, Gary played electric piano and Dean’s alcoholic father played the saxophone. All they needed was a bass player and Chuck, who knew his way around the guitar, was quite willing. What he needed was a bass – or rather a more portable electric bass guitar. And Dean’s Father’s Music Store just happened to have one of the new Fender Precision Basses in stock.

Having sunk all his money into a hot rod that wouldn’t go faster than forty miles an hour without vibrating so bad your fillings would fall out, Chuck had to try to find a way to get my parents to pay for the new bass. Here was the pitch: “Tim played the big double bass in Junior High, but now he can’t. How about buying it for both of us and we’ll share.”  Having been primed beforehand by Chuck and Dean, I lied and told Mom and Dad that I had a couple of friends who were putting together a rock ‘n’ roll band and would love it if I had a bass to play. The instrument was purchased and Mom even threw in some lessons for me.

An old World War Two veteran named Mel Orlick had been a big-band drummer in the 30’s but lost a leg in the war. He and his wife lived in a tiny house in Laramie and he gave music lessons. After the first couple of lessons, I had learned just about everything that he knew about playing the bass which wasn’t a lot. But I kept going back because I liked the guy and enjoyed his company. He would sit on his bed, play the guitar, sing, and beat time with his stump. We’d play “Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown”, “Pennies from Heaven”, or “We’re in the Money” then we’d take a break and he would tell a rousing story about him and his fellow sailors getting in a fist fight with Marines in a Pearl Harbor bar. We’d hoot with laughter, then he’d pick up his guitar and we’d play another old song.

About that time my good friend Charlie, who played guitar and knew a fellow named Dwayne who’d just bought an electric guitar, started talking to me about a rock and roll band. My lies had become prophetic. Although Chuck was playing with Dean and Gary’s foxtrot-style band most weekends so the bass was not always available, Charlie and Dwayne and I were able to put together about an hour’s worth of music. We had no drummer, nobody sang, we didn’t even own a microphone, so we learned instrumental songs like Telstar,  Green Onions, Walk Don’t Run and others by the Ventures. We weren’t very good but since we were available and we were cheap, we managed to book a few gigs around town.

At one of these gigs, a dance in the Laramie High School cafeteria after a football game, a kid was standing against the wall in the dark and studying us. His name was Dennis Woods. I don’t know if Dennis already owned an electric guitar or that we inspired him to buy one, but by the time I finished high school and went into the Service, Dennis had begun organizing and rehearsing a band. When I got tossed out of the Service a year and a half later, Dennis’ band was going strong. When they had come to that question that every band comes to – “what the hell do we call ourselves?” – they decided they wanted something that sounded “Space Age”. They settled on the name The Retros. It wasn’t until they had spent money on posters and publicity material that they found out that “retro” meant “backward”.

It wasn’t long before The Retros broke up, as teenage bands invariably do.  And Dennis – everybody knew him as “Woody” – began putting together a new band. My old friend Charlie was now in the Navy but his younger brother Don was as good a picker as Charlie was and Woody asked him to play lead guitar. Max, one of the most cheerful and good-natured men I ever knew, was to be the drummer. Woody recruited me to play the bass.

After a month or two of rehearsals, it became clear that my simplistic Mel Orlick-inspired bass patterns were inadequate for rock ‘n’ roll and instead of asking me to buckle down and really learn to play the bass, Woody strongly suggested that I buckle down and learn to play keyboards. His younger brother George had just bought a bass guitar and was already better at it than I was.

After some wheedling with my parents, they agreed to cosign a loan. I in-turn agreed to look for a job to pay for the loan and ended up at a local furniture store delivering console TVs.  So I found myself the proud owner of a Farfisa Portable Organ.  Now all I had to do was learn how to play it. With a book titled “Learn to Play the EZ Way” and what I could remember from my Fauniel Fellhauer lessons, I was able to play background chords for simple things like “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu”. But when I tried to play any tune that required a modicum of complexity, my fingers would bump into each other and I’d quickly get lost.

So when we played I mostly stood behind the keyboard, played the tambourine, and sang backup. On some songs, just to change it up,  I would stand off to one side, play tambourine and sing backup while Woody played my keyboards. But I was cute, back in the day, and could sing a little, so my bandmates put up with me as long as the band was together. Some friends of mine told me they once had a teenage band in Evanston and they tossed a guy out of the group by stacking his equipment on his front porch, ringing the doorbell, and driving away. At least I was spared that kind of humiliation.

Before we had actually started to play in public and after much discussion, we settled on the name “Mes Amis” which means “My Friends” in French. That meant that most of our audiences had no idea what our name meant and the few that did, hated it because it reminded them of the French classes they despised. Back then I preferred “Woody and the Ax Men”.  I still do.

People who believe in reincarnation will tell you that it’s the secret and strong desires you hold in your heart that will dictate the circumstances of your next life, though what you may have to put up with to get there could be truly awful. If that’s true, then next life look for me in a stinking bar on a back street on the bad side of Old Rangoon. I’ll be the piano player.


*Go to the column on the right and click The Vacant Lot