Selling Sagebrush in Chicago

Sometimes I think of my brain as more of a committee than a single entity. I picture a large group of them sitting around a big table. There’s Lazy Tim, half asleep; Comedy Tim, constantly making up the most god-awful jokes; and Logical Tim, trying to make sense of a bewildering world. Some seats sat empty for a long time before finally being occupied. Hard-Working Tim took years to finally show up. And some seats that were long-occupied are now standing empty. When Sexy Tim ran out of testosterone and had to fade away, all the others gave him a nice, little going-away party but it was pretty obvious they were relieved to no longer have to deal with all the trouble he caused.

There is one guy who has always been politely listened to, but then usually ignored. This is Idea Tim. Even when solutions to small problems are needed he’ll sit there with a blank look on his face and contribute little or nothing. But then, every two or three weeks, a light will come into his eyes and he’ll jump up and wave his arms.

“I got it! I got it!” he’ll yell, “Buy or rent a vacuum-dredging machine, mount it on a truck, and spend the summer in the Colorado Rockies prospecting for gold!”  Or, “Cast cabinet knobs and handles in the shape of unicorns and rainbows to sell for little girls’ furniture!”

The others all put up with him because every now and then he does come up with a good one. If he hadn’t jumped up last Fall and yelled, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! How about a blog?” you’d be wasting even more time on Facebook than you already do.

Unfortunately for me, those times when things go haywire and some good, solid, crisis thinking is needed are the times that Idea Tim is at his looniest. Instead of “Okay, with a little belt-tightening, hard work, and self-denial we can get through this,” it’s “I’ve got a can’t-miss scheme that’ll make big money and get everything back to normal in a week.” Here’s a case in point.

In 1977 I was living in Denver, I’d just quit working for an outfit called Code Signs, and I was doing some freelance sign-painting on my own. I was renting a room in the back of a house which included a parking space for my old VW van. On some weekends I’d drive up Laramie to visit friends. One Sunday evening I was driving back to Denver through a snowstorm. Just outside of Fort Collins I heard a loud “Bang!” from the engine compartment. I managed to wrestle the van over to the side of the road. And it refused to budge an inch further.

When you love old cars but can’t seem to remember to perform routine maintenance – like changing the oil – you end up frequently walking for miles through cold and darkness. I finally got to a phone and called my friend Joe who, bless his little heart, drove up from Denver and towed me back home. Steering a car attached to the end of a ten-foot chain behind a pickup truck that is going sixty miles an hour down the freeway is an experience I am happy to say I have never had to do again.

Back in my little bedroom, staring at the wall for hours, I wondered what I was going to do. The engine in my van was blown. I had about a hundred and fifty dollars to my name and it was going to cost $600 to replace the engine.

Up in the Committee Room in the back of my head things were dark and gloomy. Lazy Tim had excused himself to go to the bathroom and never returned, Upbeat Tim was slumped in his chair looking mournful, Hard-Working Tim was idly picking clumps of sawdust out of his tool belt, and Logical Tim was shooting paper clips at a spot on the wall. Suddenly, Idea Tim sat bolt upright, jumped to his feet, and waved his arms.

“I got it! I got it!” he shouted, “There is sagebrush growing all over the prairie around Laramie, right? There are so many you never really notice them. But if you look close up, they are really beautiful and fascinating plants. Plus they smell good! All I have to do is rent some old jalopy, drive up to Wyoming, dig up about a hundred sagebrush and stick them in the back of the car. Then I drive to Chicago and sell them for six bucks apiece. It’ll be enough to get the car fixed.”

And I was sold! It was perhaps the most hare-brained scheme I had ever come up with but I was ready to give it my best shot. I found a newly-opened business there in Denver called “Lou’s Rent-A-Dent” that specialized in renting older, previously-owned cars. I caught a bus there and talked to a roly-poly bald guy who talked around his cigar. He was the eponymous Lou.

Lou steered me to a five year-old Dodge Dart that had been converted from burning gasoline to propane. Perhaps because of the weird fuel set up he gave me a hell of a deal – seven dollars a day, no mileage charge, and he would take a post-dated check for a deposit. I accepted his offer, wrote him a check, and was off to the sagebrush prairies of Wyoming.

On the way I stopped at the University of Wyoming and after asking around I was directed to a professor of Botany who knew a lot about sagebrush. He was highly dubious of my plan but said there was a slim chance it could work. I took this as a firm endorsement.

“There are three kinds of sage in this area,” he said, “Black Sage, Big Sage, and Silver Sage. Of the three you’d have your best chance with Silver Sage. It grows up around Medicine Bow.”

My disappointment at having to drive 60 miles out of my way was tempered by the Professor telling me that of the three varieties, Silver Sage was the only one known to survive a bare-root transplant. This was wonderful news, as I had become concerned with how I was going to fit 100 sagebrush plants with dirt balls around their roots into the back seat of a Dodge Dart. The trunk of the car was almost entirely taken up by the added propane tank.

I left Laramie early the next morning with a back seat full of bare-root sagebrush plants in four black plastic garbage bags – 25 to a bag. I was headed to Fairfield, Iowa, 800 miles away. I thought I could get there by 8 o’clock, where I could find my friend Glenn, who was a student at a little University there, and get him to put me up for the night. Then the next day would be an easy 300-mile jaunt to Chicago where my long-time friend Patti would make me up a little cot in the basement. I had talked to Patti and made arrangements but had been unable to connect with Glenn. But there were only 700 students in this little school, how hard could it be to find him? Damned hard I found out.

I came driving into Iowa on the heels of a massive cold front that had dropped a foot of snow and had driven temperatures down to only a hair above doodly-squat.  The journey that was supposed to take 12 hours stretched out to 16. I hadn’t factored in missed exits, spending long, nervous stretches looking for truck stops that sold propane, and allowing time to empty my bladder and fill my stomach. When I finally came cruising into Fairfield, the big sign on the Bank said it was 12:15 and 14 degrees below zero.

I drove around the university campus hoping for some sign of life, but everything was as cold and dark as the inside of a well-digger’s glove. I couldn’t sleep in the car and I couldn’t afford a motel. I was about to go find the local police station and ask them if they could put me in a cell, Mayberry-style, when I noticed a University cop car making its rounds.

“No, I can’t tell you where a student’s room is,” the patrol officer informed me. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

After I had explained the rock and the very cold hard place I was between, he took pity on me and told me there was a wing of one dorm that wasn’t being used, but the heat was being left on enough to keep the pipes from freezing. He could open a room for me but as for the rest, I was on my own. I thanked him profusely and was soon asleep on a bare mattress, still fully-dressed, and snuggled under two garbage bags full of sage brush.

In the morning I found Glenn. He got me into the cafeteria for a nice breakfast. Then we discovered the Dodge Dart wouldn’t start. Luckily, he knew someone at the motor pool who came and took a look and said that the propane had gotten too cold and until the whole car had warmed up well above freezing, there wasn’t enough vapor pressure in the tank to start the car. It took the rest of the day to tow, push, and grunt the car over to the motor pool garage where it would spend the night. I slept on Glenn’s dorm room floor that night and the Dart was ready to go the next morning. Glenn insisted on paying me for one of the sagebrush and was installing it in a pot as I left.

Things were looking up! I had sold my first sagebrush and Patti was expecting me in Chicago. She had warned me on the phone that there was a serious snow storm forecast for the city and I should hurry.

So there I was, driving into Chicago at the beginning of the worst blizzard in ten years. I found Patti’s Father’s house on the South Side, East of Cicero just as the wind-driven snow was getting almost too thick to see. All night it kept up and by the next day there was more than two feet of the white stuff on the ground and nothing was moving. Chicago was snowed in.

I spent the next day catching up with Patti and yelling at her father. He was a genuinely nice person but deaf as a post. I also designed a little tag to be tied around each of the sagebrush plants. The tag featured a cartoon cowboy holding a potted sagebrush and next to him was an explanatory paragraph:

“This is a genuine Wyoming Silver Sage. It is a desert plant so be very stingy with the watering can. Like the people of Wyoming, it thrives in adverse conditions. So when you mist your other plants, throw a little crushed ice at your sagebrush. When you talk to your other plants, cuss at your sagebrush.”

By the following day the snowplows had cleared most of the main streets and I set out to sell my plants. I had a list of every florist and every wholesale plant dealer on the South Side.

Of the ninety-nine sagebrush I had with me, I sold a grand total of zero. Over and over I heard, “We only buy from people we know and have a track record. Sorry.” The few who I could get to even look inside the bags said, “These things are either dead or dying.”  All-in-all, as Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek said, “It was a magnificent catastrophe.”

Once again, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had only enough money left to either pay for the propane to get back to Denver, or to pay the rental fee once I got there, but not both. Patti then suggested that if we were to drive back to Denver together, she would pay for the fuel. Two months earlier, her father had had a health emergency and she’d flown back home to Chicago to take care of him. Now that he was feeling better, she could go back to Denver and pick up her car and some personal stuff.

Early the next morning I sadly dropped my bags of sagebrush into a dumpster in the alley before turning the Dart around and heading West. We took turns driving, sleeping, and telling each other long stories. We drove straight through, stopping only for propane, bathroom breaks, and food.

It was around noon the next day when I pulled the Dodge Dart into Lou’s Rent-A-Dent. Not knowing what was going to happen, I waved to Patti, who had followed me with her own car, screwed up my courage, and walked into the office. And I didn’t come out for a long time.

After I had been in there for more than twenty minutes, Patti began to get worried. Perhaps, she thought, Lou had lost his temper and punched me out. Or possibly he was making me sit there and wait for the Police to arrive. Finally, just as she was wondering whether or not to pick up a tire iron and bust me out as well as trying to remember what a tire iron looked like, I came out of the door.

With a sheaf of typing paper in my hand, I got into the passenger seat. She looked me over for bruises and, finding none, asked, “Are you okay? What took so long?”

“Sorry about that. He was a little taken aback that I’d driven it all the way to Chicago and back, but since I hadn’t violated the contract there was nothing he could do.”

“And that took nearly a half an hour?”

“Well, no. I told him I was a sign painter and I thought he could use a sign. He agreed and the rest of the time we spent making sketches and talking about prices.”

I showed her the sheets of paper. On them I had drawn an approximation of the lettering on his business card and a cartoon of a sexy blonde woman leaning on the fender of a car. In each iteration the blonde’s breasts got larger as the scoop-neck top she was wearing got lower. In the final one with a red check on it, it was difficult to see how she could stand upright without falling over.

“How much will he pay you?”

“A hundred dollars for a full-color scale drawing. If he okays that, then $700 for the sign.”

“So after all this, you ended up with enough to get your car fixed after all.” And I did.

Coqui

I’m not a big believer in the extraordinary miracle. When I’m feeling down, you won’t find me wasting my time hoping for some big magical event to suddenly wallpaper my world with wonderfulness. But I do have endless faith in the small, everyday miracles that are all around – like big puffy clouds, hot fudge sundaes, and the smell of sagebrush after it rains. I’m convinced that just appreciating all those little marvels is more than enough to give anyone an amazing life.

That being said, in December of 1971 I received a letter from my Mother that would alter my life, not just in the immediate future, but a long way down the road as well. At the time she was living in Puerto Rico with a fellow named Herb. Herb was an American who specialized in teaching English as a second language. He had gotten a job at Inter-American University in Mayaguez and had convinced my newly-divorced mother to come down to the island and set up house with him.

I, on the other hand, was living in a squalid little apartment in Laramie. I had no job, no prospects, and Winter was breathing her icy breath down my neck.

The first thing Mom said in her letter was that she was writing from the Hospital in Ponce. This was not unusual. Being a world-class asthmatic with a highly sensitive personality, she spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals* and when she was there she’d while away the hours catching up on her correspondence.

Probably the biggest trigger for one of these serious asthma attacks was when someone close to her had said or done something mean, threatening, or unkind. This time it was Herb who had laid her low and it was a lulu.

After she had moved in with him, Herb proved to be a less-than-attentive paramour. He was more of the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am persuasion. He had also given up his very continental habit of drinking a small glass of Port after the evening meal in favor of slugging down a whole bottle of the stuff, then stumbling off to bed to pass out. Their love life became her being awakened the middle of the night for (in her words) “a halitosis quickie.”

After her hints, gentle requests, and attempts to share her feelings had all fallen on alcohol-befuddled ears, she decided it was time for a showdown.

“Look,” she told him, “I came down here looking for a lover, not a rapist!”

I don’t know what she was hoping for in return, but it certainly wasn’t what Herb delivered. What he told her was that his wife, hitherto dead four years before of Cancer, was actually alive and living in Illinois gathering grounds for Desertion.

Mom once told me that she sometimes suspected her asthma was some kind of morbid defense mechanism. It was her body deciding to end an uncomfortable crisis by strangling itself. Within minutes of Herb dropping this bombshell on her and she realizing that she had been lied to, betrayed, and used by this wretched little man, her bronchial tubes promptly closed down almost completely and she was barely able to crawl to a phone and call an ambulance.

“So I have a question for you,” her letter continued. “Would you be interested in flying down to Puerto Rico and staying here with me and putting up with Herb for a few months? I do not need you to save me from the awful man, but if I don’t have a friendly face around the place to relate to, I’ll be back here in the hospital again and again. It will be more than worth it for me to pay for your fare as well as feed and house you while you’re here. I have a couple of friends here, Fitz and Mary, who have a business making papier mache souvenirs for tourists and they will give you a job. Will you come?”

Within three days I was on a plane from Denver to Miami with a connection to Puerto Rico. When I got off the airplane in San Juan, the first thing I noticed was the humidity. After spending most of my life in arid Wyoming, even walking through the San Juan Airport late at night was like walking through a steam bath. The second thing I noticed was how open, smiling, and happy the people were. I had heard and read all the stories about the vicious Puerto Rican gangs in New York and I was admittedly concerned for my safety. Some of the wildlife might be scary – poisonous centipedes, spiders, and cockroaches that fly – but the people turned out to be the sweetest, kindest, most accommodating folks I’ve ever lived among.

The third thing I noticed was a tall Norte Americano with a hook nose and a bald head. We made eye contact, he questioningly held up a homemade sign that said “Tim Pelton” and I smiled and waved.  This was Robert Fitzgibbons, known to all his friends as “Fitz.” Mom had not been feeling well enough to make the trip to San Juan, Herb refused, and Fitz was happy to step in. The drive back to the little town of Lajas included the first of many delightful conversations I was to have with the man and with his wife Mary. Fitz was bright, emotional, and very particular and detail oriented. Mary came from Savannah, Georgia and loved to drop sharp little barbs into the conversation cloaked in a honey-thick, Southern accent. Together they were hilarious.

Both of them were creative and clever in very different ways. Mary was an artist and loved designing new and interesting things for them to make. Fitz was a backyard engineer. He invented little machines that would help them make their products quicker and cheaper. As an example, Mary designed and made dancing figurines of Caribbean musicians. Fitz designed the latex and plaster molds that were needed to cover wire armatures with papier mache. Mary (and I) would paint the figurines with bright acrylic colors. Once dry, Fitz would dip the figurines in a vat of lacquer, and then secure their bases to a ferris wheel-like contraption he’d made. Jose, one of the neighbor kids he’d hired, would turn a crank and the figurines would rotate slowly, head over heels, until the lacquer was dry. Because of the rotation, there were few, if any, drips to clean up.

They also made wrist bangles in bright colors, ornamental pins, and cutely cartoonish owls. Once every other week they would put “Hecho en Puerto Rico” stickers on the bottom of all the newly made products, load up their old van, and then drive up to the gift shops in San Juan. American tourists, off the cruise ship for the afternoon, would stop by the shops looking for souvenirs. And that’s how their living was made.

When Herb first moved to Puerto Rico he rented a little house in the town of Lajas, not far from where he worked. When Mom came a month later, this was the house they first shared.  Mom immediately noticed, and was curious about, the fact that the Puerto Ricans seemed to like living very close to one another. Houses in the little town were packed together while the hillsides around were sparsely populated. Then one evening she figured it out. Dusk on the island lasts a long time and on nearly every porch up and down the street, families were gathered. The quiet buzz of conversation moved back and forth between the dwellings and across the narrow street. A person could sit comfortably on his own porch, play dominoes (the Puerto Rican national pastime) with Uncle Pedro, and at the same time have a conversation with the whole neighborhood.

Unfortunately for my Mother, a close neighborhood meant lots of traffic, which meant lots of exhaust, which meant trouble breathing.  Herb did not especially want to move, but said that if she found something suitable, he would go along. So Mom bought a used Volkswagen bus and spent time driving up and down the hills around Lajas until, at the top of a little, winding dirt road, she found an abandoned night club. Its semi-remoteness, the cause of the club’s downfall, was the big selling point for Mom. The place consisted, primarily, of a cement slab, low walls, and a corrugated tin roof. There was a kitchen of sorts, an office room became the bedroom, and the bar area and dance floor became the dining and living rooms. There were no windows, just the open areas between posts where bats would zoom in and out after dark. When I arrived, Mom had hung curtains around the stage and installed a cot with a mosquitero(mosquito net) hung over it. This was to be, for the next five months, my bedroom. I had always wanted a life on the stage.

The rift between my Mother and Herb had solidified and he had settled into a cold and quiet routine. He’d leave early for work, come back home in the evening to eat his dinner, and then open up a bottle of Port. There was a short while, after he’d had a few drinks but before he got too sloshed, when he could more than hold up his end of a conversation. He turned out to be an intelligent man with a good sense of humor. But soon he’d retreat into a moody silence, turn on Puerto Rican TV, and slowly drink himself into a stupor. By eleven o’clock the bottle was empty and he was passed out in bed.

A few months before I arrived, Mary showed Fitz her latest design. It was a little frog pin. Fitz was skeptical at first, but soon warmed to the idea. They would be simple to make and if they sold, they would yield a lot more profit than the labor-intensive figurines.

“A frog, eh?”

“No,” Mary corrected him, “It’s a coqui.”

There is a little native tree frog, not much bigger than the last joint of your little finger, that in its eternal quest to find a mate, makes a high pitched “oo-ee, oo-ee” sound from which the name is derived. There must be millions of these little guys on the island and they contribute the high end to the cacophony that is the Puerto Rican night.

Fitz and Mary convinced several of their client gift shops in San Juan to carry the little frog pins. And they flopped. None of the tourist ladies was interested in wearing a brightly-colored little frog pinned to her blouse.

Fitz thought about this long and hard, then picked up a pen and wrote the following:

“Long, long ago, before the White Man crossed the ocean, on this island lived a Warrior Prince named Coqui who was so valiant against his enemies and so kind to his people that the Gods created the little tree frog and commanded it to sing the Prince’s name to the night sky for eternity. Listen, you can hear it now! “Coqui! Coqui! Buy me! Buy me!”

He had this printed on cards with the title “The Legend of the Coqui” and pinned each of the frog pins to a card. Two days later they began receiving phone calls from the gift shops asking them to send more of the frog pins. They had sold out.  The coqui pins were suddenly their top sellers.

“You see, Timmyteo,” Fitz explained, “it’s all about ego involvement. Now, have you got any suggestions for a legend about owls?”

Within a few weeks, Fitz and Mary began to see “The Legend of the Coqui” – word-for-word – attached to frog-shaped tchotchkes of all kinds. And sales of the pins, though still lively, returned to manageable levels. A couple of months later, in a Travel article in the New York Times, “The Legend of the Coqui” was quoted as being an ancient Puerto Rican folk tale. The Puerto Rican Minister of Culture, an old friend of Fitz and Mary’s, was livid.

“You can’t just make up lies and pass them off as Culture to sell your products! It isn’t right!”

“Look at it this way,” Fitz replied, “Essentially, a legend is just a lie plus time.”

*****

By June of 1972, my Mother had, with help from me, Fitz, and Mary, packed up and moved to Albuquerque. She left Herb, who had been playing the martyr in this drama, a papier mache crown of thorns. We heard later, in a letter from Mary, that Herb had managed to convince his wife to move from Illinois down to Puerto Rico so he could have someone to cook and clean for him while he slowly drank himself to death.

How then, you might ask, does this whole adventure qualify as a miracle? In the short term I got to escape from the frigid rigors of a Wyoming winter and instead bask in the Caribbean sun for several months. Also, I made two great and good friends in Fitz and Mary. But even more than that, I had never before closely experienced a successful, loving married relationship between two mature people. All I had to go on until then was my parent’s marriage and that inspired me only to bachelorhood. So to say that this trip changed my life is truly no exaggeration.

*****

*See Mom Takes the Plane Back Home in the list of posts to the right

 

 

Mom takes the Plane Back Home

My mother had always suffered from hay fever. When her eyes started watering and her nose itched and ran, you knew that some weed, tree, or flower had just loosed its pollen into the world. Her raucous sneezes were legendary and always came in groups of three. We lived in Laramie, Wyoming and she didn’t seem to mind the fierce winter cold and wind as much as others did, probably because those were the times that nothing was blooming.

While I was in High School, Mom made a decision. At the time, she was a very good painter of pretty pictures – landscapes, flowers, and portraits – but she wanted to give her artwork more depth and meaning. Unsure of how to find the way on her own, she enrolled in the Fine Arts program at the University of Wyoming.  When I joined the Air Force a few years later, she had her MFA, she had built a studio on the back of our house, and she was creating paintings that had strength and passion.

When I came home on leave a year and a half later she was a different person. She could only sit for a few hours in the Living Room, barely able to find the strength to hold a book, let alone paint. Her hay fever had turned into full-blown Asthma.  Her allergies had multiplied. Not only pollen, but house dust, pet dander, many different foods, even the linseed oil in her paints could trigger an attack.

“The worst part of being slowly strangled,” she said in between ragged wheezing breaths, “is the panic. Any sharp emotion only makes it worse. It becomes an awful spiral.”

That evening I woke up to noise upstairs and a flashing red light outside my window. I came out to see her on a gurney being wheeled to the front door by a couple of EMT’s. She took a puff on an inhaler, then weakly waved to me as if to say, “don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”  At the Hospital it was touch and go until one of her Doctors realized that she had developed an allergy to the CFC’s that powered the inhalers she was puffing on. They started her on a course of prednisone injections and by the time I left, she was back in her studio making sketches for her next painting.

Her letters during the following months described the roller-coaster ride she was on from health to near-suffocation and back again without warning or schedule. She was a person who, concerned that I might worry, always found ways to make her situation interesting and amusing. From a hospital in Albuquerque she wrote, “I have decided to write something other than ‘Christian ‘ on the admitting forms. I’ve just had the second dreary older couple come to my room to ask me if I was ready to meet the Lord. Next time I’ll put down ‘Zen-Buddhist’ just to see who shows up.”

A couple of months later she was in Denver General Hospital and wrote, “Well, some young sleep-deprived Resident just tried to kill me, but I’m still kickin’. He glanced at my chart, did not see the ‘Strong Allergy to Aspirin’ note, and told the nurse to give me something that happened to have aspirin in it. A few minutes later I went into anaphylaxsis, my bronchial tubes completely squeezed shut,  and after a few wild moments I was dead. All I remember is a comfortable darkness, then coming awake to find an oxygen mask pressed over my face and people shouting weird questions at me. ‘What is your name?’ they yelled. ‘Where do you live?’ Deciding to forego any smartass answers, I told them. They must have been satisfied because they packed up their crash cart, said ‘Welcome Back,’ and went away. They left a nurse to pick up the joint. Evidently I flopped around a lot before I croaked, knocking over every IV pole, blood pressure machine, and bed table I could reach.”

It wasn’t until the next time I got back home that she told me the rest of the story. After another week in Denver General, she had recovered somewhat, but was not happy.  In her case, “not happy” was generally accompanied by “not healthy.” She felt overwhelmed by the size and coldness of a big institution and felt that if she could just go back to the little hospital in Laramie, she would recover faster.

Arrangements were made to put her on a flight from Denver to Laramie. In 1966, Frontier Airlines was flying the Convair 580 on its short-distance flights. Thirty-four seats and faster than a DC-3, but not much. Mom went by ambulance to Stapleton International, by wheelchair to the airplane, and up the stairs and into her seat under her own power. She was wearing a hospital gown, covered by a bath robe, and had a blanket wrapped around her. The Stewardess (that was what they were called in 1966) helped her get seat belt fastened and get settled.  Mom prepared herself for what she knew was going to be an ordeal.

My Mother had always been subject to motion sickness. From experience in boats and other airplanes, she knew that if she were to open up and use one of the little bags conveniently tucked into a pocket on the back of the seat in front of her, she would keep puking all the way to Laramie. For the first half of the flight the air was smooth, her stomach was fine, and she began to relax. But then the plane began to cross the Southern end of the Laramie mountains. Updrafts and down drafts began to shake and bounce the little airliner. Although her insides also began to bounce and shake, Mom grimly held on. Her jaws were clenched and beads of cold sweat were standing out on her forehead, but her breakfast was staying in place.

Then  they were out over the Great Basin in the Laramie Valley, only a few minutes from landing at Brees Field. She had made it.

The airplane suddenly dropped like a stone, stopped with a bang, and shot back up again. Mom grabbed the little bag and shoved her hand in to snap it open. What neither she, nor the airline, knew was that someone on a previous flight had used it, then carefully flattened it out and returned it to its pocket. Mom shoved her hand into a bag of cold vomit. Then she threw up in her lap.

The poor stewardess apologized profusely as she tried to clean Mom up with all she had for the job – a little box of Kleenex tissues. My mother just sat there and wept.

Asthma, with all its complications and triggers, is a little bit different for every person who suffers from it. For this reason, it is difficult to treat. It took more than a few years of working with different doctors and different treatments before she was able to find some stability and get back to her life and her art.

She lived for another forty years.

 

 

 

Standup

It was sometime near the beginning of 1967 that I first fell in love with the idea of becoming a standup comedian.  For some people, just the thought of standing all alone on a stage in front of a big group of people and saying things that you hope will make them laugh would be the worst nightmare imaginable. To me, it seemed like my dream job.

How did this love affair begin? It was a conversation I fell into with a couple of guys in the University of Wyoming Student Union.  They’d sat down to talk to a mutual friend and happened to mention an audition they were preparing for.

“What sort of audition?” I asked.

“Every year the University sends a sort of variety talent show called “Wyo Days” out on tour around the state. They stop at High Schools and do shows,” one of them said. “The purpose is to get kids excited about enrolling at dear old Yewdub.”

“Bill and I play guitars and sing folk songs, like The Brothers Four minus Two, or the Kingston Duo.” the other added.

I laughed appreciatively, then asked, “What kind of acts are they looking for?”

“Just about everything but Contortionists and Clog Dancers. There’s a poster out in the lobby. Check it out.”

I quickly found the poster in question and looked it over carefully. There on the list of acceptable acts, in between “Singers” and “Musicians of every kind” was the word “Comedians.”  Fifteen minutes later I had booked an audition time for myself.

Now you’re probably wondering what a person who’d never done standup comedy before was going to use for material. First, I should say I had done it before – at parties and in front of small groups of friends – and what I had used for material then was what I planned to use again. And that was Brother Dave Gardner.

When my older brother Chuck was in the Air Force and stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi he went once to a club to see a comedian called Brother Dave Gardner. The guy made him laugh, so he bought his album and eventually brought it back home to Laramie. Brother Dave was a Southern comedian. Very Southern. He had a thick Southern accent and told jokes and stories about the South. Consequently, nobody in the North had ever heard of him. So I shamelessly stole from him everything I could. I rewrote some of his Southern vernacular into “Northernese.”  “Stewed Tomato Okra sammiches” became “Deviled Egg and Mashed Potato Sammitches.” And his statement, “The other day I was in Hot Springs Arkansas where I saw them stupid, ignorant Southerners sellin’ water… to them brilliant Yankees” became “The other day I was in Thermopolis where I saw those stupid, ignorant Thermopolians sellin’ water… to those brilliant tourists.”

I did ten minutes of Brother Dave’s material at the audition and was invited to join the tour.

The auditions were held a couple of weeks before Winter Finals and rehearsals began a few days after the beginning of the new term. One of the requirements for being included on the tour was that everyone had to have at least a 2.0 Grade Point Average. When grades for the previous semester were released, two people had lost their places. The Tour Managers asked me to stay behind after the next rehearsal. It seemed that one of the losses was the Master of Ceremonies and the other was the bass player. They asked me if I would be interested in taking over the MC’s job as well as keeping my own standup slot.

“Sure,” I said. I have always felt that the best way of determining whether or not the water was over my head was to jump in first.

“By the way,” I added. “I was the bass player in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll bands in High School. I have a bass. If you can find me an amplifier, I can probably fill in for you there as well.”

Full disclosure: I wasn’t very good at playing the bass and I had no idea how to be an MC. I just thought, “I’ve been watching Ed Sullivan every Sunday night for years, how hard could it be?” What I found out was that it isn’t hard to be adequate, but it’s very difficult to be good. And as for my bass playing, they really only needed a bass player for the Herb Alpert song “Tijuana Taxi.” They had me wear a big, bouncy sombrero and dance around. When it came time for my solo – the five notes at the end of every verse that are followed by an ooga horn – if I flubbed it up I could just pull a funny face and let it become part of the act.

At the end of our little two-week tour I came back with stars not just in my eyes but running out over the tops of my socks. Of course, I was not taking into account that I had been working in front of some of the easiest audiences on the planet – once I’d poked a few insults at the school that was their biggest rival, they loved me.  No, I only heard the raucous laughter as it had washed back at me from those crowds. I was ready to go out, grab the world by the lapels and say, “I got some jokes you’re gonna love!” I only lacked one thing: the courage to try.

Perhaps in the quiet caverns in the back of my brain I was waiting for a little group of sycophants to come along who would help me, buck me up, write material for me, and be my biggest fans. What I didn’t realize was that when you have done all those things for yourself and no longer need anyone to do them for you, that’s the time when all those people will show up.

It was in the Spring of 1989, more than twenty years later, that I packed up the Blue Goose – my old Dodge Van – and headed for Southern California. I had been regularly appearing at a small club in Denver that was trying out Comedy Night one night a week and I felt I was ready. I had vowed to stop cribbing from Brother Dave and had written about 10 minutes of original material. These jokes had not gone over particularly well in Denver but I convinced myself that they were just too “cutting-edge” for the Denver bumpkins and would “kill” in Los Angeles.

So I began a two-year journey through the grim and terrifying Pits of Hell that were the Los Angeles comedy clubs’ open-mic nights. Most LA comedy clubs give the slowest night of the week over to amateur comedians looking for a break. Whether it was The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, The Hollywood Improv , or the Icehouse in Pasadena, the routine was the same. The amateurs line up and take a number, then wait. First come professional comics who want to try out new material, and then newly-minted professionals hoping to impress the management of the club enough to consider taking them on as a regular. Finally, around 10:30, the beginning comedians are introduced and take the stage one-by-one. By that time the audience has mostly gone home leaving seven or eight people who are either too drunk to leave or who enjoy heckling nervous amateurs.

I was told it was helpful to record all your performances, even the ones that bombed, for there might be a few good nuggets that worked and that you could use again. I found one of those old tapes years later and it was painful just to listen to it. First would be my voice telling a joke, then a period of absolute silence broken only by the sound of a chair being scooted out. Then a nervous giggle from me, then another joke told with a quavery voice. And on from there.

I absorbed nearly three years of this punishment, all the while telling myself that I just had to stick it out a little bit longer and learn a little bit more. Eventually I had to admit that this was another one of those things – like learning to play the piano – that I would never be able to do. What finally began the process of pushing me out the door was a comedian named Danny Mora, trying to be helpful, who told me the secret to stand up comedy.

“The secret,” he said, “is your Comic Attitude. You have to find out what is the Point of View that makes you funny. What is the attitude toward the world that makes people laugh with you. Once you find that, strip everything else away and build your material around it. Look at Rodney Dangerfield. For years he banged around the LA clubs doing his one-liners and getting nowhere. Then one day he came up with “I don’t get no respect!” and suddenly his voice, his gestures, his jokes all fell together and he took off like a Roman Candle. To put it another way, you have to have such an obvious Comic Attitude that a skilled mimic can see your act 2 or 3 times and be able to do a spot-on impression of you.”

And I couldn’t do it. I could tell jokes, pull silly faces, and do crazy characters in funny stories. But as far as my own special point-of-view I was clueless. I lurched about town for a few months, trying different things out, until I finally realized that all these efforts were little more than Cheez-Whiz – something inauthentic concocted from mostly non-organic ingredients.

So with a heart much lighter than you would expect, I finally bid goodbye to the dream of spending my nights in bars telling smutty jokes to drunks and moved to Iowa.

Scuba Diving in Wyoming

Sixty feet isn’t a long distance. It’s only about two-thirds of the way from home plate to first base. But when you’re sitting on the bottom of a lake that’s sixty feet deep, it can sure seem like a long, long way to the surface.

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My older brother Chuck joined the Air Force in the early 60’s and was assigned to Electronics School at Kessler Air Force Base near Biloxi Mississippi. While he was there he became friends with several other guys who were all crazy about scuba diving. In short order, Chuck had purchased a full scuba diving rig with tank, regulator, mask, weight belt, fins, and a wet suit. He enjoyed his time underwater with his friends and hoped that wherever the Air Force posted him, it would be somewhere with a lot of interesting scuba diving possibilities. The dear old Air Force, with its twisted sense of humor, posted Chuck to Diyarbakir Air Station in the middle of the Turkish desert.

Chuck, home on Leave before traveling to the Middle East, showed me where he had stowed his scuba gear in the garage and said that if I ever wanted to use it, that would be okay as long as I got Certified first.  I told him I was grateful for the thought but didn’t think I’d have the opportunity.

Then the family wished him Good Luck and Godspeed and he was gone. After returning, he told me a bunch of stories about his Turkish adventures, enough to fill at least a couple of these blogs, but those are his stories and you’ll have to get him to tell them to you.

Several months after Chuck left, it was early Spring and my friend Tom-from-across-the-alley suddenly developed an interest in scuba diving. Since I have always been easily recruited – the madder the scheme the better – in very little time I was eager and ready to go. After all, I already had the equipment. Luckily for us, there were some divers already living in Laramie who had formed a club. Their leader, his official title was Divemaster, was a young man named Tom Atwell.

Under the auspices of the club, we neophytes learned about our equipment, passed our tests, and were given Certifications from some national organization. Thereafter there were club meetings and excursions to dive at nearby Lake Hattie. About half the time of the meetings was spent planning the big club outing in early June to Guernsey Reservoir. The other half was listening to Tom Atwell’s diving stories.

One story was about the first time he came face-to-face with a sea bass. The creature was so ugly Tom nearly spit out his mouthpiece and drowned. Or there was the one about the time he and another man were paid the almost-unheard-of sum of a dollar a minute to dive into a local reservoir in the Winter to fix a clogged outlet. Or there was the story about the time he was diving in Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody. The Buffalo Bill Dam, at 360 feet high, is the tallest dam in the United States. So the water on the other side of it is about 300 feet deep. Up near the dam, so deep they had to use powerful underwater lights, he and another diver saw Rainbow Trout that were easily 6 or 7 feet long. Had spear fishing been legal, they could have fed a dozen people on one of these monster-size trout.

Now, there are two problems with scuba diving in Wyoming. One is that the water is cold. The top few feet may have been warmed by the sun enough to swim in without protection. But as you go deeper you enter layers where the temperature suddenly drops substantially. These are called “thermoclines.” A lake of any depth usually has three. In Wyoming, the top layer is “cold,” the middle layer is “really, really cold,” and the bottom layer is “Yikes!” To combat this, a diver wears a “wet suit.” This is a close-fitting neck-to-ankle neoprene suit about three-eighths of an inch thick. It soaks up the cold water like a sponge, and then holds a very thin layer of it against your skin. Your body heats that film of water up and suddenly, miraculously, you are warm.

The second problem is that most of the smaller, shallower lakes in the State are murky. The inflow and outflow of water creates currents and the silt never has a chance to completely settle. And that was the reason for the expedition to Guernsey Reservoir. All that Spring, as the snow in the mountains melted, the reservoir had been slowly filling up. But the farmers downstream traditionally don’t need irrigation water until the middle of June or later.

“If we can get there no later than the second weekend in June,” Tom the Divemaster told us, “we’ll have crystal-clear water to dive in.”

And so it turned out to be. There I was sitting on the bottom of the lake next to the boat anchor and looking up the anchor line. I could clearly see the bottom of the boat floating on the surface sixty feet away and divers entering the water by rolling backward off the boat.

Being deep under water with a scuba tank on your back is an amazing thing. If you’ve balanced the flotation of the wet suit with your weight belt, you are neutrally buoyant. You neither float up nor sink down. A push of your hand or a kick of your flippers and you are headed in any direction. Fish swim by with minor curiosity, then go on about their business. Plants and rocks on the bottom of the lake become mysteries that must be explored.

After what seemed like only a few minutes of this, my breath became harder and harder to draw and I realized I was running out of air. A single scuba tank being used at 60 feet will provide enough air for about half an hour of diving time. Rather than leaving me in deep water unable to breathe, the equipment designers provided a safety measure called a “J Valve.” Along the side of my tank there was a wire with a loop on the end that, when pulled, would give me the five more minutes of air that I would need to get easily to the surface.

I pulled the valve, took a couple of deep breaths, and decided that rather than go back up to the boat it would be more fun to paddle back to the shore along the bottom of the lake. I must have lost track of time again because it was surprising to be once more running out of air. There was no second J Valve to pull. With a thrill of fear, I kicked toward the surface. But what had seemed like very little air in my lungs steadily expanded to become plenty of air as the water pressure decreased. My head broke the surface only about twenty yards off shore.

Although I went on a couple more diving trips to some of the nearby murky lakes, due to a newly-acquired Summer Job it was not possible for me to go on the rest of the club’s major diving expeditions that season. And then, just as luck had brought me to Scuba Diving, the currents of my life shifted once more and I was to never again find myself bubbling my way through deep water. But I will never forget the joy of it.

It would not do to end this ramble without telling you my favorite of Tom Atwell’s stories.

Tom and several of the club’s more experienced divers would, during the long Wyoming Winter, get the urge to go underwater. Since they couldn’t afford to fly to Cozumel, they would drive out to Lake Hattie, chop a hole in the ice and dive in. Actually, when proper preparations were made, doing this was feasible. A little crazy, yes, but definitely feasible.

The main danger involved in diving under the ice is not, as you would expect, the risk of heart failure when you first jump into the icy cold water. It is that once you are in the water more than a few feet down, if you look back up toward the hole you can’t see it. All you see is your lifeline going up into a general glare. This rope that is firmly tied to you becomes literally what its name implies. If it is broken or lost you can only feel your way around under the ice sheet hoping to find the hole before your air runs out.

To dive under the ice, one first has to have an extra thick wetsuit that includes a hood, gloves, and booties. Tom and a couple of his friends were so equipped. Just as he was preparing to jump in, Tom recognized an ice fisherman, a friend of his Father’s named Frank, who had set up his stool next to a hole in the ice about 50 feet away. Frank had had his back to the divers the whole time and didn’t know what was going on, so Tom decided to play a little prank on him. Tom took a careful compass reading of the ice fisherman’s position, and then entered the water.

With an eye on the compass, and after his body temperature had normalized, Tom swam down to the bottom of the lake and picked up a handful of waterweeds that were growing there. Tom’s diving glove was black neoprene with a bright yellow line that ran around the tips of each of its three fingers. Wrapping the weeds around his left hand, he checked the compass again, and kicked upwards.

Tom proceeded slowly under the ice sheet, feeling his way until he found Frank’s ice fishing hole. Chuckling to himself, he put his left arm up through the hole and patted it around on the ice. Then he put his head up through the hole, pulled his mask off, and prepared to say, “I gave you a start there, didn’t I?”

The stool was knocked over, the pole and tackle box were left on the ice, Frank was about 70 feet away and running as hard as he could go.