Fat Tuesday

 During my first forty years on this planet I had made numerous stabs at being a writer and had given up in frustration each time. I could not touch type. Nothing would choke off the flow of ideas like having to stop every eight or ten words, roll the paper up, and erase or white out the dumb mistake I just made.  The cry of anguish usually came when I rolled it back down and typed another mistake right across the remains of the first one. Everything I wrote ended up with holes erased through the paper or blobs of White-Out every other line.

But then someone or some group of people invented the Word Processor. Hallay-freakin-looyah! Like the most understanding of lovers, a Word Processor will always say, “I forgive.” Until they put up a Temple of Gratitude somewhere, I will continue to put rosebuds and gumdrops on my personal homemade shrine to the Word Processor.

When I first moved to Chicago in 1987 I took with me a gaggle of ideas for a Musical Play called Charlie and Cinderella. The basic idea was that a young would-be writer is sitting in the audience of the play Cinderella with a notebook making changes to the story. And the play goes all wonky because anything he writes, the characters have to deal with. So the Fairy Godmother casts a spell, goes out into the audience, and drags him up on stage by the scruff of his neck. She tells him he has to deal with all of his own changes himself and still make the story come out with a happy ending. As I started assembling the pieces into a script (I had a computer called an Amiga with an “amazing” memory of 256K) I went looking for a Composer.

A friend of a friend knew a musician named Elizabeth Doyle who was interested in writing songs for the stage. She read some of my work, I listened to some of her music, and we decided to give it a go. Using what we had done together on Charlie and Cinderella as an audition, we entered the New Tuners Musical Theatre Workshop as a team. After we completed the Introductory Program we were asked to pitch an idea for a new production that New Tuners would put up. The catch was that it had to be a brand-new post-Intro Workshop idea, and therefore Charlie was out.

At first we liked the idea of adapting an old drama called Death Takes a Holiday. But before we could even try for the rights, we heard that it was going to be remade into a movie. The film that eventually came out (and bombed) was Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt. So, it was back to the proverbial drawing board. Elizabeth found a Victorian Era mystery novel called The Woman in White. By Willkie Collins, it is considered to be the first mystery novel ever written. The Villain was a wonderful character – a huge, charming man, he was cultured and witty and rotten to the roots of his well-manicured fingernails. But the novel moved around from one place to another so much it was practically a road movie. A play needs to be done on a limited (meaning cheap-to-build) set.

After considering and ultimately rejecting several other ideas, we came upon the faint outlines of a plan that just might have legs. “What if we took the character we liked so much from The Woman in White and dropped him into a Death Takes a Holiday-like situation?” Then another concept waddled up and sat down – “Instead of Death, what if he turns out to be The Angel of Death?” Just this simple change and the character took a big side-step further away from being The Villain. He became The Messenger.

We knew we were getting close, but we were still missing one crucial part – where to set it. Our thought was “If we are writing a show that features a visit from the Angel of Death, where do we set it?” Death takes a Holiday was in a wealthy man’s mansion. But we wanted upbeat singing, dancing, and all manner of colorful craziness to contrast against our serious subject. I don’t remember which of us first conceived it, perhaps it was a simultaneous brainwave, but we realized it had to be New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras is the biggest continuous party on the North American continent. Outrageous costumes, drunken revelry, and all kinds of wildly immoral behavior go on for more than a week. All of this culminates on Fat Tuesday (the English translation of “Mardi Gras”). The next day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and six weeks of abstinence and repentance. The metaphor is unavoidable.

Elizabeth and I pitched the idea for Fat Tuesday to the New Tuners in 1992. They strongly encouraged us to get to work on it.

According to our signed agreement, Elizabeth would be the Composer and I would be the Lyricist and Book Writer. The “Book” is dialogue and plot – everything in the musical that is not a song. The other two job descriptions are pretty much self-explanatory. Each Composer-Lyricist team on any given musical has their own way of producing a finished song. Here’s the workflow that Elizabeth and I settled into. First, we would discuss where a song was needed and what it needed to do to carry the plot forward. Then we’d talk about an emotion or mood we wanted the song to convey, and then finally we’d spitball phrases or verbal hooks.

For example, we wanted a fun, upbeat rouser to open the show. Elizabeth remembered seeing the French phrase “Laissez le bon temps rouler!” in connection with Mardi Gras. It means “Let the Good Times Roll!” When the show opened several years later, the first stanza of the Opening Song went like this:

“Down there by the banks of that old muddy rollin’ river,

There’s a mighty message that the river can deliver.

Listen closely and you’ll hear it say,

Laissez le bon temps rouler.”

When we had agreed on a possible song, Elizabeth would spend some time working on a tune. When she thought it was right, she’d play the song into a cassette recorder and sing the lyric pattern as la-la-la-la. After getting the cassette from her, I’d replace the la-la-la’s with words that were clever, told the story of the song, and rhymed perfectly. Of all the different kinds of writing that I’ve done – screenplays, short stories, novels, straight plays, blog stories – the most difficult, by any measure, is lyric writing. It’s like trying to walk barefoot and blindfolded through a roomful of mousetraps. It’s slow, tentative, and painful.

How difficult, or easy, is it to write the music? I haven’t got a clue. I am a man who has many talents. I can grab hold of my toes and hop over a line on the floor without letting go, I can touch the end of my nose with my tongue, and I can make a mean potato salad. But I’m a musical moron. I take cold comfort in the fact that a huge majority of human beings on this planet are just as musically illiterate as I am.

Here’s my theory – I think that on a certain late summer morning a very select number of young kids are awakened by a tapping at their window. They open it to find an owl holding a letter for them in its beak. They are invited to Treble Cliff, a secret school that will train them to be musicians and composers. They learn to perform magic while the rest of us Musical Muggles are left with a few Ocarina lessons in sixth grade.

Here’s a quick story to illustrate my point. One day Elizabeth and I were sitting together in the Workshop listening to a discussion about someone else’s project. During the break we had talked about a point in our show that was crying out for a song. A group of people, strangers to each other, have gathered in the lobby of a small hotel in New Orleans. They have all come to Mardi Gras, each with his or her pressing reason. Then a huge ebullient man wearing a top hat, cutaway coat, and diamond stick pin breezes into the room and bids them all welcome. He announces that their hotel bills have all been paid, that they are his guests and that a costume, in the correct size, has been selected for each of them and is hanging up in their separate rooms. He disappears into an elevator, leaving them with their mouths open in disbelief.

“If that happened to you what would be the first thing you’d think of?”

I answered, “Who in the Hell was that guy?”

Later, in the workshop, Elizabeth’s eyes took on a faraway glaze, and she quickly opened a loose-leaf binder and got out musical notation paper. She would close her eyes; arrange her fingers on the edge of the binder; and play what she was thinking, then write it down. Or her fingers were making the notes come alive in her brain. Like I said, it’s just freakin’ magic. The resulting song, “Who in the Hell was That Man?” became one of my favorites in the production.

Anyway, just because a song is finished doesn’t mean it will have a place in the show. Elizabeth and I wrote something like thirty five songs to get the fourteen that Fat Tuesday opened with.

In February of 1995, Elizabeth and I flew down to New Orleans and spent two or three days in the French Quarter during the height of Mardi Gras. We felt that it was ridiculous to write a full Musical about the event without ever having been there. We put on costumes (I had a long gown, a feather boa, and a wig – all of which set off the full beard I was wearing nicely), we caught strings of beads, and we watched young girls on balconies pull up their tops and wave their breasts at cheering crowds of men down in the street. Many of the things we saw and participated in made their way into the show.

After three years, we had our musical written. Singer/actors were found and we did a reading of the show in front of the Decision Makers at New Tuners. The good news was that, yes, they wanted to produce Fat Tuesday there at the Theatre Building. The bad news was that they felt the show needed a Page One rewrite. In other words, “Throw out pretty much everything you’ve written and start over.”  

After taking a few days to absorb the blow (and me wondering why I ever gave up drinking), we got back to work. We had about nine months to do what had originally taken us three years. We tossed out whole scenes, changed character’s motivations, and rewrote dialogue and lyrics as we went. We wrote several new songs and plugged them in. We grieved as many things we were quite proud of were made to walk the plank. By February of 1996, when the show was to begin pre-production, our tentatively approved script and score were ready.  We could sit back, relax, and enjoy the process. Or so we thought. We were invited to sit in on auditions, watch rehearsals, and give a few notes to the Director. Then during the last week of rehearsals, we were summoned to a meeting with the Producers, the Director, the Music Director, the Choreographer, and several other people who had something to do with the show (I wasn’t sure what that was) and who had an opinion. By the time we reeled out of that meeting we had a list of requested changes three pages long, single space.  It wasn’t a Page One rewrite but it was close. And we had a week to complete it.

Some of the things on that list were, I thought, awfully nit-picky – “Shangri-La” doesn’t perfectly rhyme with “Mardi-Gras” so that whole verse has to be replaced. While others were of the “That’s so obvious, why didn’t we catch that long ago” variety. One problem still bothers me to this day. A character is forced to tell the woman who has loved him for years that he has an incurable disease and is likely to keel over at any time. But he also has the strength and agility to dance and sing right up to the time of his demise. What affliction could he be suffering from?

I took most of that week off from work and wrote furiously. Since most of the notes we got were Book or Lyrics-related, Elizabeth could only watch and cheer me on. The Producers even hired another writer to help me out on a few things. Even so, all the way up to Dress Rehearsal we were bringing in new pages. Finally, mercifully, the show was locked.

Fat Tuesday opened on April 10th, 1996. The reviews were, as the saying goes, “mixed.” The critics loved the Music and thought the Lyrics were okay, but most of them didn’t care for the Book. Despite this, and due to New Tuners’ publicity efforts, the show played to mostly full houses for the next six weeks.  A musical is a very expensive thing to produce and only turns a profit if Public Demand is strong enough to keep it running for a long time. Six weeks is not a long time. Because we had a Contract that stated that the Creative Team got a small percentage of the box office, Elizabeth and I got about $825 each. I think the Producers lost money.

My wife Michelle and I had both decided, even before Fat Tuesday went up, that our road did not run through the theatre community of Chicago, but through the film and television business of Los Angeles. Two months after the show closed we packed up a U-Haul truck with our two cats and everything we owned and headed west.

***

If you live in Chicago or if you are planning to visit there, I would urge you to find out where Elizabeth is playing and singing and go take in her show. She writes a wonderful blog – http://www.elizabethdoylemusic.com/blog/ – and in it lists all of her upcoming gigs as well as tips on restaurants, books, films, and whatever strikes her fancy.

Kitchen Boy

In the summer of 1962 I got my second full-time job. The previous summer I had worked on the nearby Red Ladder Ranch*. But this next year, when I was fifteen, my friend Tom called me up and said that the University of Wyoming was hiring Kitchen Boys to work at their Recreation Camp.

The Camp was located about ten miles northwest of Centennial, Wyoming. It consisted of a dozen guest cabins, staff cabins, meeting rooms, and a dining hall with a commercial kitchen. It was nestled in the edge of the forest in the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains.

The Camp did not offer programs of its own but it was rented out to various clubs, teams, and groups looking for a place to hold a retreat. No matter who was renting the place, they all needed to eat and a Cook and an Assistant Cook were hired to provide the necessary victuals. Forty to sixty campers can produce an awful lot of dirty dishes – not to mention food-encrusted pots and pans – so a couple of young boys were required to clean up after the cooks. And Tom and I got the job.

When we first applied for the job, Mr. Watkins, who interviewed us, told us that once the breakfast dishes were done, we could relax for an hour before beginning to work lunch. After the few lunch dishes were washed, we would have several hours to do whatever we wanted until it was time to go in and help with Dinner. For this we would get Room and Board, plus a check totaling Seventy-Five dollars every month. The previous summer I had been paid a total of $25. Of course, I had run an expensive piece of farm equipment into a fence post and bent it – but to my ears, which were clearly still-wet-behind, $75 seemed like a princely sum.

One of Tom’s first duties was to drive the old, green Chevy truck into Laramie and pick up Mrs. D, who was to be the Cook. Mrs. D was in her 60’s and morbidly obese. When she climbed into the cab of the pickup, the springs squeaked in quiet process and the truck leaned noticeably to the right. Mrs. D in her youth must have been a strong, strapping woman because after being coated in a thick layer of adipose tissue, her arms were enormous. Tom discovered one downside to this when, on the road out to Centennial, a wasp flew in an open window and Mrs. D, in Tom’s words, “started flailing those giant arms around and about wrecked us.”

My old friend Dave once told me his theory of institutional food. He said there were several huge underground vats near Topeka, Kansas that contained a light gray, gelatinous substance. Numerous pipelines ran from these vats to every large institutional kitchen in the lower forty-eight states. All those cooking stoves and refrigerators in university kitchens, hospitals, and assisted living centers were rarely used and mostly there for show. What was constantly in use was the pipeline terminal and the various molding, shaping, and coloring machines. These turned the gelatinous substance into green bean casserole, lemon meringue pie, and tuna surprise. There were no flavoring machines, hence the taste of the food. After the meal, all leftovers and scraps were scraped into another machine that turned it all back into gray gelatinous substance and pumped it back to the vats under Topeka.

Mrs. D. must have spent most of her working life running those shaping and coloring machines, because cooking was not an actual talent that she possessed. She covered this lack by using as many pots and pans as she could, frequently burning the contents, and leaving it all in stacks on the stainless steel tabletop next to the sink. Even without that, the job would have consumed a lot more time than Mr. Watkins’ sunny picture. But add Mrs. D’s proclivity to use five pans where two would do the job, and we were going into the Kitchen at 5:30 in the morning and not stumbling out until somewhere north of eight o’clock that night.

As well as the long hours, I had one other problem to deal with – the raging hormones of puberty. In a few short years, girls had gone from something to be teased or ignored, to these strange creatures who were simultaneously terrifying and enchanting. The Recreation Director, Gordon, who shared a cabin with Tom and I, had a record player that he’d let us use. Among the offerings in his small collection was Johnny Mathis’ Greatest Hits. I played this record over and over, memorized most of the lyrics, and began to sing along to the drippiest ones. Tom quickly came to hate the song “Misty.” He still does.

The first few groups that rented the camp had lots of attractive women to admire/ogle. The secret to ogling – especially when you are fifteen – is to not ever be caught in mid-ogle. A kitchen is naturally darker than the dining hall that it fronts on, so back in the shadows behind a post next to the potato peeler was a perfect spot to watch the girls eating the last of their lunches. Those first few groups, however, afforded no opportunities beyond ogling. The Church Campers were far too religious, the Square Dancers were far too old, and the Cheerleaders were far too unapproachable.

Then in late July came Band Camp. High School musicians came from all over Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming. In the mornings they would gather in the dining hall, the meeting room, even some of the cabins to practice. In the afternoons they would go out in the Camp’s grassy field to march.

On the Band Camp’s first morning, as I was carrying a full garbage can out to the collection area, a pretty little blonde girl carrying a leather case asked me how to find Cabin Eleven.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said as I put down the can and hung my apron up on a tree branch. “Why don’t I show you the way?”

As we walked I learned that she was from Alliance, Nebraska, that she played the clarinet, and that, yes, she would like me to give her a little tour of the Camp after dinner. On the way back to the kitchen I could hear Johnny Mathis in my head singing “Wonderful Wonderful” as I told myself I must be the smoothest guy in Southeast Wyoming.

 The next couple of weeks were actually perfect for a budding, teenage romance. We could only find spare moments to be together and consequently didn’t have to actually talk to each other very much. There are desert plants in Wyoming that only thrive on a little sprinkle of rain now and then. This young infatuation was like that. We held hands and even shared a couple of brief-but-sweet kisses, then Band Camp was over and we parted with promises to write that we didn’t keep.

As summer lurched into August, we had a few days off. On one of these days, Gordon showed up with several old inner tubes that we inflated with a bicycle pump. We jumped in the camp truck and drove up Highway 130 to the top of the Snowy Range. Up there, rising up from Libby Flats, is Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in southern Wyoming. The Peak has a steep, rocky cliff-like face, but at the Western end has a more rounded appearance – like a shoulder. It had been an unseasonably cool summer up at the top of the mountains and there was still a long patch of snow and ice remaining in a protected corner of this shoulder. 

There are people in this world who love to climb up the sides of mountains, who need no other reason to do so than, as Sir Edmund Hillary famously said, “Because it’s there.” I am not one of those. I much prefer to sit in a comfortable folding chair at the base of the mountain with a cold drink in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. And yet, there I was, trudging up the side of that slope with an inner tube under my arm, quite willing to exchange a half hour of effort for fifteen seconds of sheer terror. Repeatedly.

As we saw our summer beginning to slip away, and we looked at the schedule, we realized that there were only going to be a few days at best between the end of this job and the beginning of school. And it didn’t take a math-whiz to figure out that we were being paid about fifteen cents an hour. The temptation to tell Mr. Watkins and the University of Wyoming where they could put their coolie-labor job was very strong.

But after mulling it over, I decided to stay and finish out the job. I’m not sure exactly why, probably equal parts of “I made a commitment and I’m going to see it through,” and “If I bag out now the Old Man will never let me hear the end of it.” After the last camper had left, I stayed an extra day or two to help winterize the place and get it ready for opening the following June.

Looking back through the softening lens of many years, I have come to the conclusion that after all the sweat and aggravation, that summer had been well worth it. I got to spend nearly three months in a beautiful pine forest, I experienced my first teenage crush, and I learned that when you’re mashing fifty peeled and boiled potatoes with a long-handled masher, it’s nearly impossible to get all the lumps out. Which is a good thing because all the vitamins are in the lumps.

***

                                                                                         Thanks to Tom Denniston

*Look in the Right-hand column for Tim vs. the Tractor

Jim Bridger 2 – Red Iron

If you ask me to hazard a guess, I’d say that Chip, my Foreman, had never read Edgar Allan Poe.  It was the autumn of 1973 and I was working as a Laborer on the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Point-of-Rocks, Wyoming*. One of the main responsibilities of the Labor Union’s members on that job was to sweep dust off the framework of the building before the Painters’ Union members could spray on a new coat of rust-resistant paint.

The framework of the building was made of steel I-beams that had been painted with several thick coats of scarlet paint and was therefore known as “Red Iron,” as in, “Hey, Pelton, I’m gonna need y’all and Swede to go up on the West end of Level 4 and sweep off the red iron on the walls and ceiling. The Painters’ Foreman will meet y’all up there and show you what needs to be done.”

Chip was from Alabama and his thick, Southern accent seemed to have a difficult time making its way past the wad of Red Man tobacco in one cheek and the smoldering stub of a cigar stuck in the other. At one point, he must have decided that he knew me well enough to start calling me by my first name. That would have been fine but he, despite me gently correcting him, consistently called me “Tom.” I only had to say, “Okay, Chop,” once and he went back to calling me “Pelton.”

One day Chip assembled his crew, there were about eight of us, on the Sixth Level of Building One. He walked us over to an outside wall that showed a narrow opening where a piece of sheet metal had been removed.  There was enough dim light inside the wall for me to see that it was hollow. A thirty inch gap between the inside and outside walls had been created by an intricate frame of eight inch red I-beams.

Chip said, “Sparky’s just about finished setting lights.” (All Electricians on a construction site are known as “Sparky”) He paused and dropped the butt of his cigar on the floor, stepped on it, than spat tobacco juice on it to make sure it was out. As he did so, an Electrician emerged from the opening paying out a long extension cord.

“All y’all have got safety belts on, right? So you climb up inside the wall up to the fire blocking on Level Nine, then work your way back down to here, sweeping off the red iron as you go.  When you get back down here, there’ll be a vacuum to clean up. Got that?”

One-by-one, the crew, carrying brushes and brooms, disappeared into the opening. I was the last, and as I stepped in I turned to Chip and said, “For the love of God, Montressor.”

Chip looked at me like I was insane.

“You know – Edgar Allan Poe. The Cask of Amontillado?” I looked for some sign of recognition. “A guy seals another guy up into a wall…”

“Get your ass in there, Pelton. Jesus.”

***

The one part I hated about that job was when I had to sweep off the large horizontal I-beams that spanned empty, open spaces. If you follow this blog, you probably know that all my life I have had to deal with basophobia . This does not mean fear of fish with large mouths, but fear of falling.** When asked to sweep off one of those big girders I would have been perfectly within my rights to beg off. But then I would have been assigned to one of the shovel crews digging ditches down on the ground. It was an interesting decision – did I want the relatively easy but scary job? Or the safe grunt work?

My decision was obvious because there I was – straddling an eighteen inch I-beam. My butt was on the top six inch wide web; my boots were on each side of the bottom web. Trying not to look down at the forty foot drop below me, I’d sweep the beam in front of me with one hand while I clung to the steel with the other. When I’d gotten about as far as I could reach, I slowly scooted forward a foot or two, then continued sweeping.

I felt the vibrations of footsteps and I looked up to see a Boilermaker Foreman coming toward me. He was walking along the top of the beam like it was a sidewalk. He looked up from his clipboard and saw me directly in his way. I don’t know if it was the pallor in my face or the white of my knuckles where they gripped the red iron, but he just rolled his eyes, said something like, “Aw shit,” turned around and walked back the other way. If I thought this display of nonchalance about height was impressive I had only to wait a few weeks for the real show.

In the meantime, I heard one day that The Laborer’s General Foreman wanted to see me. With some trepidation I sought him out and he told me that Chip had decided to drag up. In the parlance of construction workers, to “drag up” was to quit your job, pack your bags, and hit the road, usually for another construction site with greener pastures. In Chip’s case, he came out to his truck one morning and had to scrape a layer of ice off his windshield.  The next day he was on his way to a nuclear plant being built in warmer and closer-to-home Arkansas. Since Swede had also left the week before, I was the senior man on our crew and he asked if I’d take over being Foreman.

As I put those little vertical orange stripes on each side of my hard hat, I found I had two things to be pleased about. I would be making an extra thirty five cents an hour, which would make it that much sooner that I myself could drag up and head for Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training. The other thing is that a Foreman is not expected to do any actual work, which would mean I could tell other people to scoot out there on those big girders and clean them off while I remained on solid footing. With hand rails.

From then on, once I had the crew all lined up with that day’s jobs and the various paperwork done, I could take a little time and go stroll around the project for some sight-seeing. There were four units in total planned. Each Unit contained a huge coal-fired boiler that created enough steam to power a massive turbine generator. At the time I was there, the first unit was well along in construction and would come on line in about a year. The second unit was about half-built; and they were still fitting the skeleton of the third building together with tall cranes moving enormous steel beams around like pieces in a jumbo erector set.

The buildings that house the boilers are over 250 feet tall. I was very curious as to how they joined the ends of those beams together. I couldn’t really make out the process from the ground and there were no windows in the steel sides of Unit 2. Then I noticed that there was an exterior fire escape on the side of the Unit with doors at every level. Each door had a good-sized reinforced glass pane installed in it.  If I could make my way to the particular door that was the same height as the upper reaches of the frame across the way, I would have a ringside seat.

I first checked with my crew to make sure they were okay, and then went up to take a look. I was expecting to see a good-sized team working on an elaborate system of temporary platforms, scaffolding, and jacks. Each beam represented tons of steel swinging through the air and I felt it would take some engineering brilliance to corral it, position it perfectly, and then attach it. What I saw was one iron worker wearing a tool belt with deep pockets sitting at a L-shaped joint in the frame.  A crane was lifting what I guessed was the next horizontal beam toward him.

I found out later that this guy was a member of a particular subset of the Ironworkers Union. They are called “Connectors”.

The Connector, using only hand-signals to the crane operator, guided the end of the beam into close proximity. When it was within inches, he locked his legs around the steel he was sitting on and wrestled the new beam into position. He pulled a spud wrench out of his tool bag and shoved the pointy end through the bolt holes, lining them up. Then he put in about three of the necessary twelve bolts, capped them with nuts, and then took out two more long-handled wrenches and tightened the bolts down. Then he stood up and walked along the twenty foot length of the new beam to the unconnected joint at the other end. Even from my window I could see that the metal he was standing on was slowly swaying in the wind. In between him and the dirt below was nothing but 180 feet of thin air. He calmly sat down on the end of the swaying beam, twiddled his fingers to get the crane operator to drop it a couple of inches, then wrestled the two pieces together and repeated the bolting process.

When the Ironworker relaxed and lit a cigarette while he waited for the next piece, I realized I’d been holding my breath and let it out with a whoosh. I was cold with sweat and my heart was hammering. I have been to circuses and I’ve seen high-wire acts with spotlights and drum rolls and all the slathered-on faux-drama the management can muster, but I’ve never been as terrified-from-a-distance as I was by that one Connector just doing his job.

***

*Go to the right-hand column and click Building Power Plants for America.

**Go to the right-hand column and click Crazy Bill.

Building Power Plants for America

After spending six months with my mother in Puerto Rico*, then a year with her  in Albuquerque, which she never really took to, and then helping her move to Manitou Springs in Colorado, I was finally free to relocate my own path in life and to follow it wherever it led.  I had started practicing the Transcendental Meditation program in 1970 and not long afterwards I decided that what I really wanted to do was to learn to be a teacher of the technique. So there I was, several years later with the desire still smoldering in my breast. I think that’s what it was. Or else it was the longest-lasting case of heartburn in medical history.

In order to become a TM Teacher you had to attend and pass a three-month Teacher Training Course. They were held in Europe. Between course fees, plane fares, and other expenses, I would need about $2000 which was $1995 more than I had to my name. I was going to have to look for a job.

I asked around and found out that a couple of my friends, Dave and Randy, were working on the Jim Bridger Power Plant which was under construction 35 miles east of Rock Springs, Wyoming. I called them up and they explained not only that the project was hiring and how to apply for work, but offered to share a house trailer they were renting in the little hamlet of Superior not far from the plant. All I had to do was make my way to Rock Springs, find the Laborers’ Union Hall and sign up. After that was done, Randy would meet me and give me a ride out to Superior.

I went to see the Old Man to ask if he could give me $30 to cover my bus fare and a few days’ living expenses until my first paycheck. He and I had not been on the best of terms when I left town two years before, but I thought that with the passage of time his feelings might have mellowed enough that he could be convinced to part with the cash. Especially since it would mean that I was actually getting a real job and that I would be leaving town again. It was good that I was not expecting an open-arms, return of the Prodigal Son-type reception; because the gimlet-eye and a few harrumphs were all I got.

After hearing my spiel, he replied with a few thinly-veiled slurs on my character. Finally he told me that he supposed he could see his way clear to the thirty dollars, but it would not be a gift, only a loan. Not, in his words, being able to trust me farther than he could kick an anvil, he had me sign an IOU for the money. I then proceeded down to the Greyhound Bus station and purchased a ticket for Rock Springs.

The Bechtel Corporation is the largest construction company in the United States. They built Hoover Dam in the early 30’s and have been involved in nearly every megaproject in the world since then. They had won the bid to build a huge, coal-fired power plant in South Central Wyoming in the early 1970’s. The facility was to be called the Jim Bridger Power Plant. It would have its own nearby strip mine and produce 2,110 megawatts of electricity – enough to power more than 2 million homes.

The Bechtel Corporation is fully unionized. Every person who did any physical labor on the project belonged to one of the many construction unions. Each of these unions had responsibility for one particular phase of the construction process and anyone from another union was forbidden to do any work outside of this “job description.” If it was made of metal and directly attached to a motor, only a member of the Operating Engineers Union could touch it. If it was metal and not attached to a motor, only an Ironworker could put his paws on it. If a Pipefitter was caught nailing a small chunk of plywood over a hole in his work shack, the Carpenters’ Union could call a wildcat strike and all hell would break loose.

The Laborer’s Union Hall – a cramped office, one flight up in an old, creaky building – was a short walk from the Rock Springs Bus Station. Usually, someone just joining the Union has to wait until all the available jobs have been taken by more senior union members. If there is nobody else waiting, then you get the job. The demand for Laborers at the new Plant was so strong that I was instantly hired and told to report to work the following Monday. Randy picked me up that evening and took me out to the trailer house in Superior.

The trailer was old, saggy, and funky, but it was cheap and had three little bedrooms as well as the smallest bathtub I have ever seen. It was more than adequate for the purpose and I was grateful.

On Monday, at the Bechtel on-site office, I was given a yellow hard hat and a roll of ½” orange tape. I was told to put a loop of the tape around the hard hat, give the remainder back, and then go and find the General Foreman for Laborers. He would be on the ground floor of Unit One and also wearing a yellow hard hat with orange tape around it. But his hat would have two vertical orange stripes on each side.

After several days of sweeping up and fetch-and-carry, I began to notice the similarities between working on a large union job and being in the military**. The people who worked for the Bechtel Corporation directly all wore clean dress shirts and white hard hats. They were the Officer Class. They gave the orders, but never got their hands dirty. The Union guys were the Enlisted Men. We all wore yellow hard hats with colored tape, each trade with its own color – red for the Pipefitters, blue for the Teamsters, green for the Ironworkers and so on. The Crew Foremen were the Corporals with a single vertical piece of colored tape on each side of their helmets… er, hard hats. The General Foremen, with two stripes, were the Sergeants. For an example of how this works, picture a crew of Pipefitters running a line of pipe along a high ceiling on the Ninth Level and finding a small pile of trash in the way of their rolling scaffolding. After reporting this to their Foreman, they then sit down and break out the coffee and donuts. The Pipefitters’ Foreman contacts his General Foreman who in turn locates the Laborers’ General Foreman, who tracks down the closest Laborers’ Foreman and tells him the situation. This Foreman then sends two of his men, in this case Swedish Tom and me, up to the Ninth Level to clean up the pile.

When we arrive, probably about 45 minutes after the call went out; we find the Pipefitters all sitting around slurping coffee and telling rude jokes. As we start to move the pile, one of the ‘Fitters gets up and saunters over to us.

“Hey guys,” he says all friendly-like, “we appreciate the show, but there really ain’t no need to bust your asses over this. Relax, lunch isn’t for an hour yet.”

We shrug him off and continued at the same pace. The most important thing I learned on that job is how to work. Find a good pace and stay with it. Don’t get in a frenzy to finish, but don’t spend your time looking for opportunities to screw off. To a loafer, an eight hour day can seem like twelve.

Working man’s humor can be rough but also hysterical. One day in October I was riding up the Lift – a temporary elevator attached to the side of the building to move men and material – and couldn’t help overhearing two Pipefitters on the same elevator. They were grousing about the lack of safety precautions on the job.

“Yer right, Carl,” one of the two pronounced. “This job is about as safe as wipin’ yore ass on a broke fruit jar.”

His point was born out only a few days later when a skid-steer loader, called a Bobcat, slid off a temporary road and rolled down the embankment. It landed in soft dirt completely upside-down. Everybody within running distance came to help and a small crowd quickly gathered around the overturned vehicle.

“Halp!” came a voice, “get me outta here!”

“You okay in there? Anything busted?”

“I’m just goddamn dandy! I’m hangin’ bottom-side-up by the seat belt.”

Just then a cherry-picker crane truck pulled up and started telescoping the boom out and dropping the hook over the accident. Hanging from the hook was a steel-wire choker cable. Common on construction sites, a choker cable is about four feet long with a permanent loop at each end. To use it you push one loop under a sturdy part of whatever you want to pick up, and then drop both loops over the crane’s hook. A piece of pie. Easy as cake.

They say you can put an egg on the ground and a legendary Crane Operator can drop his choker cable right on it without cracking the shell. This Operator was nearly that good as he had placed, within seconds, his hook and cables in perfect position over the Bobcat’s rear axle.

Then somebody looked around and said, “Is there an Ironworker here?”

Everyone looked around in vain for green tape on a hard hat. Then they shrugged their shoulders and sat down while someone shouted to the luckless Bobcat driver, “None of us are Ironworkers so we can’t touch the choker cable. A man’s gone to find his Foreman and he’ll talk to his General Foreman. Don’t worry. Somebody will be here soon.”

So while the muffled voice of the Bobcat driver kept up a steady stream of angry invective, the small crowd of men sat down on the embankment, lit up cigarettes, and waited for an Ironworker.

By mid-November I was feeling a little bit down. In the four months I had been building Power Plants for America I had saved only about $500. Winter was coming and I didn’t want to be cleaning up piles of trash for those next few horrendously cold months, let alone for another year which was what it would take to reach my goal. That was when I got a phone call from my good friend Deb. We had both started TM at about the same time, but in different parts of the country.

“Tim,” she bubbled. “I’m going to Teacher Training in December and you have to come too!”

“I wish I could, Deb, I really do. But I don’t think I can make it.”

“Why not? We have to enlighten Wyoming. Just think of the good we can do.”

“Turn ‘em all into yogis? Yeah, that’d be cool. The spirit is willing but the wallet is weak. Of the two thousand bucks I think I’ll need I only have around five hundred. So I’m going to have to put it off for another year.”

“Put it off, my foot!” was her answer. “I have an extra 1500 that I’ll loan you and you don’t have to pay me back until after we’ve enlightened Wyoming. What do you say?

“I say YES. Absolutely. And thank you!” After I hung up I was doing a little happy dance around the kitchen which made my roommate Dave’s eyes roll.

“I don’t mind you being pleased with something,” he grumbled over his pancakes. “But do you have to act so damned silly?”

Six weeks later, wearing my only sport coat and tie and clutching my beat-up suitcase, I arrived at the Zon en Zee, the Hotel in Westende, Belgium where my Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training Course was just beginning.

*Click and read Coqui in the column to the right.

**Click and read Basic Training 1: Sergeant LaCroix in the column to the right

Swimming the Butterfly

The fact that I can swim I owe to the Cub Scouts and to a gentleman I can only remember as Mister Rardin. When I was seven years old I joined the Cub Scouts of America, not because I wanted to but because my older brothers had and because my Mother was a Den Leader. None of the fathers in my neighborhood had the time or inclination to handle a group of hyperactive seven-to-ten year old boys every week and so the neighborhood Moms filled in. Kay Denniston, Fran Lemley, and even Mrs. Northen from across the alley took a turn.

The Cub Scouts had made an arrangement with the University of Wyoming to use their swimming pool every Monday Night to teach the little boys to swim. So every Monday evening my two cousins – Bob, who was about my age, and Ken, who was a year younger, and I were dropped off at the door to the University of Wyoming pool and picked up again about an hour later.

Let me put in here that I can’t imagine how this could work today.  Just imagine – it’s cool fall weather and getting dark outside. Cars pull up, little kids 7 or 8 years old get out and, by themselves, make their way into the locker room where they find an empty locker, hang up their clothes, and then scurry through the shower room and out to the main swimming pool for large, group swimming lessons.  And there is not a bathing suit among them. Got the picture? About 50 naked, squealing little boys and two or three grown men trying to teach them, en masse, how to swim.

Most of these kids are in the shallow end of the pool, some hanging onto the side and kicking their feet, others practicing blowing bubbles underwater. There are a few advanced kids paddling about in the deep end and one little boy, sitting against the wall, completely dry, and looking unhappy. That little boy would be me.

I was afraid of the water. To be precise, I was terrified that some cruel person would throw me in – either one of my older brothers had threatened me with this or I had watched such a scene in a movie sometime – and because I could not swim I would end up struggling and gasping for breath for a few minutes before drowning.

One of the swimming teachers was named Mister Rardin. To an 8 year-old boy, all grown men have the same first name – “Mister.” On the first day, when everyone else jumped into the pool and I hung back, he told me if I didn’t want to go in, I didn’t have to. And he made sure everyone else knew not to push me.  I stayed out of the water for the entire time that evening, even during the last twenty minutes which were “Free Time.”

A week later, it was pretty much the same, but Mr. Rardin did tell me that if I wanted to sit at the edge of the pool and get my feet wet during Free Time, that would be okay. So I did that and I kicked and splashed a little bit. After a couple more weeks of this slow approach I was in the water not only during Free Time but during Instruction Time as well. I was kicking my feet, windmilling my arms, and blowing bubbles like the rest of the kids.

Two months later I could push off from one side of the shallow end and thrash my way across the pool to the other side. I could swim. And it was due to the kindness and patience of Mister Rardin.

*****

In the summer of 1962, in between my Sophomore and Junior years, an indoor swimming pool was added to Laramie High School. It was very exciting news and, along with most of my friends, I was determined to get into that pool as soon as it was ready. Since I had learned to swim, my swimming experience was in beaver ponds, in mountain lakes so cold you wanted to get out as soon as you jumped in, and in motel pools on sporadic family vacations.

The pool was first opened to the public in October. My friend John and I were among the first people to swim. And we had a blast. Actually we had a blast for about an hour. Then our eyes began to burn so painfully we had to get out. A lot of chemicals had been dumped into the pool the day before, probably on the basis of “if a little kills off most of the bugs in the water, think what a good job a LOT will do.” On the way home, John and I had to pull over several times because our eyes were stinging so badly we couldn’t see the road.

A few weeks later, notices went up on school bulletin boards that Laramie High was going to field a competitive Swimming Team and tryouts would begin the following Monday. This was to be, of course, a boys’ team. All you had to do was to take a look at the baggy, frumpy gym outfits the girls were required to wear to know that putting teenage girls’ bodies in tight-fitting swimsuits was out of the question.

I should pause here to talk about the Old Man’s vicarious dreams of athletic glory. He grew up in Casper and was a skinny, myopic, and unathletic kid. It is, I think, part of the human condition that we all feel, at one time or another, somehow “less than.” Despite the fact that he was well-liked, witty and imaginative, and had good, close friends that would be loyal his whole life, I think that his teenage brain harbored the thought, “If only I could be a football hero, I would be happy and fulfilled.”  And he never was and he never really got over it. By the time he was a grown man, a successful small town Doctor, and had sons of his own, this feeling had not gone away. Instead, it had somehow morphed into, “If one or more of my sons could be a sports hero, then at last I would be happy and fulfilled.”

As each of us progressed into and through the halls of Laramie Senior High School, we each were subject to suggestions, hints, and periodic sarcastic jabs that we “ought to try out for the team.”  Perhaps because there were no inherited genes from either side of the family that pertained to Athletic Competition or perhaps out of sheer stubbornness on our part, not one of his sons chose to contend for the dear old Maroon and White.

So it was with mixed emotions that he received the news that I intended to try out for the Swimming Team. On the one hand, he was thrilled that at least it was an organized team of some kind, and disappointed that pigskin was not involved.

One of the things that attracted me to the team was that none of the boys trying out had any competitive swimming experience. We were all just paddlers and nobody had a leg up. After Coach had eliminated the guys who couldn’t swim two lengths of the pool without stopping to catch their breath, there remained about twenty five of us. We had a month to learn the different strokes and techniques before he would cut the squad to the final twenty.

I don’t think Coach knew very much more than the rest of us, but he’d read books, been supplied with diagrams, and had even located a few instructive films. So we began to learn. First there was the Australian Crawl also known as Freestyle. The difficult part of this stroke for many is that you have to trust the mechanics of the stroke in order to breathe. You blow out air under water.  Just when your lungs are empty, you turn your head to one side and there will be a pocket of air to breathe under your arm. Once you’ve got that rhythm and trust it, all you need to do is pull and kick through the water. Or, in my case, flail and churn.

The Australian Crawl was followed by Breaststroke and Backstroke and finally, the dreaded Butterfly Stroke. I’m pretty sure the last was devised and named by some sadistic soul who tossed living butterflies into the water then studied them as they frantically struggled to get to the shore. Instead of your arms coming out of the water one at a time, they both have to come out and then plunge back in simultaneously. At the same time you must keep your feet and knees together and kick with a long, rolling motion that starts at the lower back and hips. Only one of us, Glen, was able to accomplish this with some grace without appearing to be suffering from repetitive seizures.

As the days went by, team members with different skill sets were settling into various categories. Guys who were not fast swimmers but had staying power were moving toward the distance specialties. The guys with quickness were pointed toward the sprints. Some were better backstrokers and some were better at the breaststroke. A couple of guys were learning flips and twists off the diving board and they were obviously headed for the two Diving spots. I looked around me and, with a sinking heart, realized that I was bad to mediocre at everything. Rejection is painful at any age, but it is especially sharp  when you are sixteen.

It wasn’t that I loved swimming so much, but more the desire not to be cut, that induced me to walk up to Coach and say, “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to work on Butterfly.” Bemused, he agreed. And from then onward, whenever there were exercises like wind sprints and everyone else would do them in their chosen stroke, Glen and I would Butterfly.  Since in every meet every team is expected to provide two competitors, I made the team as the Second Butterfly Specialist.

Then we began a series of Swim Meets with other high schools in the area that had teams – University Prep, Cheyenne East, Cheyenne Central, and Casper. Because the competition was so limited, we swam against each of these teams several times. The question was never whether or not we were going to win – being a first-year team we always lost – but if we were able to make a little better showing than the previous time. I would like to say that I surprised myself and everybody with my swimming prowess, but that was not the case. The best I ever did was third place. It was a four man race and one of the other guys accidently touched his feet to the bottom of the pool and was disqualified.

The Wyoming State Swim Meet was to be held in February, 1963. Because Laramie had a brand new facility, the meet was held in our home pool. I told my family about the State Meet and even when  I would be swimming. Because there were a few other towns in Wyoming  such as Thermopolis and Sheridan that had teams, in Butterfly  there would be two preliminary heats, the top three finishers in each heat would swim in the final.

Some families are the “rallying around” kind. If one of their children is in some performance or athletic competition Mom and Dad are there to cheer their offspring on. And afterwards, whether the kid has won or lost, they are there for emotional support. This was not my family. I was, for example, in Little League for three years. Neither of my parents ever came to a game.  My brother Lewis and I were in plays, science fairs, and speech competitions that our parents did not attend. After my High School Graduation ceremony, as all the other kids’ families gathered around to give congratulations and take pictures, I went out to my car and drove home alone.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came out of the locker room to warm up for my heat to see the Old Man sitting in the middle of the spectators’ section. Not wanting to spoil my concentration on the upcoming event, I did not look at him or try to catch his eye. Once or twice I glanced over there just to make sure it was really him.

When the call came to “take your marks,” I mounted the block and felt the edge of the tile with my toes. “Set” came and I leaned forward, ready to dive. A pistol shot rang out and I hurled myself into the water, did a few dolphin kicks to get back up to the surface, and began the stroke.

A high school swimming pool is 25 yards long. In a one hundred-yard Butterfly race the competitor has to swim four lengths of the pool, two down and two back. I had drawn lane one, which happened to be the lane closest to the spectators’ seats. At the end of the first length I was already behind but not by much. At around fifty yards I began to tire. As I approached the wall at the far end on my third length I could hear the crowd cheering as the other swimmers were finishing the race. When I made my turn I glanced up into the stands and I saw the Old Man’s face. It was glowing a bright, cherry red.

I clumsily swam the last twenty five yards all alone as all the other swimmers had finished and were climbing out of the pool. When, at last, I hauled myself out and looked over at the stands, the Old Man was gone. That evening he did not mention that he had been there and I did not ask.

10K With Cleo

In my fifty-odd years of sailing about the country I’ve dropped anchor in Southern California several times. I was there for a summer in the early 70’s, again in the early 80’s*, and once more in the mid-90’s – that time to stay for 20 years. The fads and fashions of Los Angeles and environs are subject to constant change, but to one who just drops by periodically certain things seem to remain the same. One of those never-changing qualities is the continuing Quest to be Cool. Most of the population of Los Angeles is engaged in this pursuit.

As soon as some pastime or interest has been pronounced to be “Cool”, within days seas of humanity up and down the Southern California coast are involved. And then, within a few months or a couple of years, the fad is suddenly gone, leaving its most dedicated practitioners flopping like fish in the mud of a recently drained lake. Imagine a fellow in the late 70’s who spends hours and hours practicing with his quad roller skates. He gets to be good at it enough to head to the beach and dance on skates to disco music coming from a cassette-powered boombox. He is Cool. But then quickly he is not cool. The cool dancers are breakdancing, the cool music is punk, and the cool devices are portable CD’s.

In the Los Angeles Garden of Cool, most of the plants are Annuals. They sprout from seeds, grow and flower quickly, and then die just as fast. But there are some Perennials there too. An abundance of money will always get you into the Cool Club. The Entertainment Industries – movies, television, and music – don’t follow trends; they make them, and therefore will forever be Cool. Another of these Perennials is physical beauty. Being stunningly beautiful or ruggedly handsome doesn’t guarantee you a place in the School of Cool, but it certainly can get you in the door.

It’s not difficult to spot this frenetic competition for the hollow and pointless exercise it is, and many of my friends during my early 80’s run in LA refused to participate. But one young woman I knew was driven to forever try scaling those cliffs of Cool.  Her name was Cleo.

Cleo had the attractiveness part down cold. Beautiful of face, she had dark hair, dark eyes, long legs, and the slender, almost boney, look that professional models starve themselves to obtain. Clothes hung on her exactly the way the designers had pictured they should. She had an amazing eye for shape and color and made a decent living as a Graphic Designer. What she really wanted to do was be a celebrity shopping consultant.

Unfortunately, for the time I knew her, Cleo never achieved her place on the heights of Cool. I think it was because she had a warm heart, a lively intelligence, and a soft spot for goofy fun instead of an icy disdain for those who were not cool. She loved nothing better than to hang out and laugh it up. I was proud to call her my friend.

While I was in Los Angeles, a passion for physical fitness was sweeping through the city. Jane Fonda was “feeling the burn,” Olivia Newton-John in a headband and leg-warmers was challenging people to “get physical,” and an Austrian bodybuilder with a toothy grin was Pumping Iron. Even the slightly less-than-cool such as myself were getting inspired to get in shape.

One day I ran into Cleo and told her I had read about an upcoming 10K foot race that I wanted to enter. The LA Weekly, the local lefty birdcage-liner, had not only run a story about a race to be run through Universal Studios following its tour route, but a calendar-specific plan to get your lungs and legs in shape in order to run in it. When I told her that all participants who finished the race got a free commemorative T-shirt, her eyes lit up.

“I want to do that too!” she said.

“Can you make the commitment to train?” I asked. “You can’t just show up on race day and expect to run more than six miles.”

“Six miles?” she blanched.

“Six point two to be exact,” I said. After a moment’s consideration I added, “If you really want to do this, we’ll train together. We can encourage each other. It’ll be fun!”

And so we began to train for the big race. Since I had a little apartment on Santa Monica Beach, we did most of our training running barefoot together on the damp sand just above the reach of the highest waves. At first Cleo seemed to be a very slow runner, but that was understandable as we were just getting started. After a few days, I began to feel a bit stronger and so decided to pick up the pace. She did not. It soon became very clear that to her pace was similar to a wad of used bubble gum on the pavement – not something she would ever want to pick up. If you’ve ever seen a jogger pausing at an intersection until the light changes, you’ve seen Cleo’s running style – bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet without much forward motion.

I had to improvise different ways to physically challenge myself, such as running backwards or in circles around her as we went up and down the beach. I also found a track at a nearby Junior High that I could run solo on in the evenings. I had made a commitment that I would help Cleo through this, to help her earn that T-shirt she could sport around in, so I was disappointed after a few weeks when her enthusiasm began to wane. She began to miss running sessions or say she could only run for fifteen minutes because she was busy.

When there were still three weeks to go, Cleo called and asked me to meet her for coffee because she had something she wanted to tell me. I was a little down-hearted because I had a strong feeling that our days of running together were probably over.  I was going to miss our sessions on the beach, however slow and odd they were, and I really wanted her to get that T-shirt.

Over a new kind of coffee, called a latte, she surprised me. She had recently begun going out with a handsome, young stockbroker who loved to go running. Once he had heard that she was training for this 10K, he not only wanted to run in it too, but wanted Cleo to train with him. Cleo being Cleo, she was afraid she might hurt my feelings and was relieved to hear that I was very happy for her. And I was. I may have even overplayed the magnanimous card a bit because not only would I get to train on my own terms, but Cleo would get to run her race and wear her T-shirt with pride. It was what you’d call a Win-win.

On the morning of the race I joined the huge throng of runners gathered in front of the Universal Studios’ front gates. When I registered, they checked to make sure my fees were paid, and then gave me a number and two safety pins to attach it to my shirt. I was official.

I went looking for Cleo. I finally found her in the company of her new boyfriend. His name was, of course, Chad or Tad and he was tall, sandy-haired, and had a well-tanned athletic body. If his running shorts had had pockets, the Cool would have been spilling out of them.  I shook his hand, wished them both good luck and went off to find a place that was not nearly as intimidating to stretch out and get ready to run.

Fifteen minutes later, a crowd of more than nine thousand runners waited outside the just-opened front gates of Universal Studios. A voice on a loudspeaker said, “Runners, attention… Get Ready…” and a loud gunshot rang out. Slowly at first, the crowd started to move. Faster runners moved toward the front while the slower runners drifted back. I was just wondering if I should step it up a little or stay at my current pace when I came upon Cleo chugging along in her not-much-faster-than-walking stride.

“Hey Cleo,” I said as I slowed down to jog along beside her. “Where’s Chad?”

“As soon as the gun went off he said, ‘See you at the Finish Line,’ and sprinted off toward the front. He’s got this competitive personality thing going. He can’t help it.” Then she looked at me with those big, needy eyes and said, “Will you run with me, at least for a little while?”

What was I going to say? “Nope, sorry babe. I’ve got to get this thing over with so I can go knock ice cream cones out of the hands of children.”

So off we went together, slow-jogging through the big box buildings with huge doors and giant numbers painted on the sides. We talked about mutual friends, and work, and I told her a couple of stories about being a kid growing up in Wyoming.

Just as we got to the backlot of the studio she once again turned up the candlepower on those big eyes and said, “Tim, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I just keep thinking about how long it is and how tired I’m going to get.”

“Well you can just forget that noise.” I told her. “You’re going to finish this race and get that T-shirt if I have to carry you. And believe me, you’re going to feel a lot worse after being jounced along over my shoulder for six miles.”

“Then you have to tell me a story. I want a long story with a beautiful and brave heroine – something to keep my mind off this stupid race.”

Relieved that she didn’t call my bluff about carrying her – I doubt if I would have been able to get another hundred yards before I bunged her into the nearest trash can – I began.

“Deep in the dark forest of Bumonia…”

“Bumonia? That’s a silly name.”

“Quiet, you. Deep in the forest lived a giant, golden-haired bear with long claws of tempered steel and teeth as sharp as sword-points…”

As we circled the pond where some of Jaws was filmed and Bruce the Shark still leapt out at tourists, I introduced the character of Princess Gwendolyn. As we trotted down the Chicago street that Robert Redford had strolled along in The Sting, Casomir the Dark Adventurer made his entrance into the tale, and the Evil Wizard Belshazzar was worming his way into the councils of the king as we passed the Roman villa from Spartacus.

When we passed a sign that said we were at the halfway point, Cleo was more concerned about Casomir who was out hunting the Golden Bear and had fallen into a trap of fire set by Balshazzar.

Two hours later, as the final climactic battle loomed between the forces of Good, led by Gwendolyn, the Golden Bear, and Casomir against Balshazzar and his evil minions, I was relieved to see the Finish Line come into view. I had been scraping the very bottom of my imagination’s barrel. Cleo was so thrilled to be finishing that she almost sped up into a slow run. Hand-in-hand and grinning like fools; we crossed the Finish Line together.

To his credit, Chad had waited for Cleo and was congratulating her as I went to check on our place in the order of finish. There were still a few people who had not yet crossed the Finish Line; but they were senior citizens who had walked the course. Of those entrants who were runners we were… last. We were something like nine thousandth and nine thousand and first. I claimed my shirt, a tan-colored T with dark brown lettering and went to say goodbye to Cleo. When I found her I noticed that instead of being thrilled and brimming with enthusiasm she looked thoroughly disappointed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Well, just look at this,” she said as she held the shirt up under her chin. “I can’t wear this. It’s not my color!”

*****

*Go over to the right-hand column and click Standup.

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.