Friday, June 15, 2018

Doing Shots with Mickey Mouse

For some unknown reason, I can remember events that happened many years ago with remarkable clarity. I cannot recall exactly what it is that I need to pick up this afternoon at the grocery store, but I can remember exactly where I was, and what toy I was playing with, when I heard that John F. Kennedy had won the 1960 Presidential election. It makes no sense, but it comes in handy sometimes.

Back in 1959, when I was one month shy of my fourth birthday, my parents and paternal grandparents decided to take a car trip from Tennessee to California to see my uncle, aunt, and cousins. My mom and dad had lived in California when I was born but had moved back East several years later, so in addition to visiting my dad's brother and his family, they also wanted to get back out West to see some of their favorite places. My dad had recently purchased a 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air, shiny yellow with lots of chrome and a big old V8 under the hood. It was a powerful, yet comfortable car, but it was also produced during a time when air conditioning was a relatively new thing, and our car didn't have it.

And so it was, on a sunny morning in April, 1959, we headed west from our home in Dyersburg, Tennessee, with my dad driving, my mom in the front passenger seat, and yours truly in the back, sandwiched between my grandmother and grandfather, who by the way, were always impeccably dressed. We crossed the Mississippi and headed into the wilds of Arkansas.

My parents were savvy about car travel, having crossed the country many times on their own, so before we left, they purchased a couple of toys for me to play with on the trip. One, designated as the westbound toy, was a doctor's kit, and the other, which I was supposed to keep wrapped until the return trip east, was a plastic toaster that could be disassembled and reassembled. Once we had gotten some miles behind us, I pulled out the doctor's kit and got to work.

It's worth noting here that in those days, just about every other child born in the United States had some type of allergy or respiratory issue, and I was no exception. I was constantly being taken to the doctor, a wizened older fellow in downtown Dyersburg who would give me a shot in my buttocks (as Forrest Gump would say), then "allow" me to go home until the next poke session. The shots never seemed to do much, but I started to take them for granted as part of life.

Since our California trip would clock in at nearly 1,900 miles each way, and given the fact that I had no siblings, I brought along the only friend that would fit in the car with me and everyone else, a little squeezable plastic Mickey Mouse. He wore his trademark red pants but had long since lost his shirt, which was a good thing, since a) the car had no air conditioning and b) we would be driving through the desert. Almost immediately upon opening the doctor's kit, I started giving Mickey shots. I was concerned for his health, and it kept my little brain occupied knowing that I had to care for him on a regular schedule. In effect, it made the miles tick away. Mickey got a shot about every hour or so, and this amused my parents and grandparents alike.

We had many adventures on that trip. Mickey and I saw Hoover Dam, a vestigial version of Las Vegas (I still remember the old Sands and Golden Nugget signs), and the Grand Canyon. We even survived a flat tire in Needles, California, which is notable for often being the hottest place in the United States. Finally, after several days of driving, we made it all the way to Los Angeles and marveled at how anyone could grow a palm tree right in their front yard. We watched TV the night that my mom and dad went to see Lawrence Welk, and we saw, right there with our own eyes, my mom dancing with Mr. Welk. Mickey seemed to be doing well in California, so I pulled back on the shots schedule to give him a little room to enjoy himself.

After a couple of glorious weeks, it was time to head back East, so we said our goodbyes, and I resumed Mickey's shots, just to be on the safe side. I also opened the plastic toaster and began disassembling and reassembling it between administering shots. I was one busy guy, just let me say.

Everything was motoring along well until we got to Needles, where once again, upon entering the city, we had a flat tire. We got that fixed and left town, then headed east. It must have been about 30 or 40 miles before I realized that Mickey was missing, so my dad (and I will never forget this) turned the Bel Air around on an Arizona highway and headed all the way back to our motel in Needles, where I found Mickey safely nestled in the bed sheets. We got back out of town with no further tire damage.

I don't remember much about the trip back home, other than the fact that my grandmother put sheets of comics from the newspaper up on the windows to shield us from the desert sun. My grandfather, never a stitch out of place and almost always in a good mood, would make sly observations from time to time that would keep the rest of us reasonably happy, given the close proximity of our seating arrangements. My mom and dad seemed to have gotten their fix of California, at least enough to sustain them until their next trip out, which, as it happened, wouldn't be for another ten years.

I guess we often take family time for granted when we're younger. But I still remember so much of that trip, the joy on my parents' and grandparents' faces when we got out of the car in Los Angeles and saw our family. The moments we shared were all ours, and even Mickey was a part, thanks to some good proactive health care on the part of his owner. The trip was so worth it.

If you're headed out of town this summer, be safe, and I hope that you experience, to borrow an old Esso phrase, "Happy Motoring." I also hope that you can make some memories of your own, so that one day, you'll have some stories to tell, regardless of whether regularly scheduled preventive healthcare and appliance maintenance are involved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mrs. Keltner and the Lightning

Of all the awe-inspiring forces of nature, lightning is my least favorite. I am genuinely terrified of its potential for sudden destruction, and I will do almost anything to avoid going outside when it appears. But it wasn’t this way before 1963, the year I started third grade.

Mrs. Keltner was our third grade teacher, and if memory serves me correctly, she was a fairly nice lady. She reminded many of us of our grandmothers, in that she seemed to watch over us like a flock, doling out practical advice whenever the opportunity presented itself. One of the things about which Mrs. Keltner was most concerned was our exposure to lightning.

Before I was in Mrs. Keltner’s class, I have to admit that I hadn’t given lightning much thought, but only a few weeks into the school year, she got into high gear with lightning warnings. She told us that during a thunderstorm, we should not ever go outside, stand close to a window, or even bathe or take showers. I translated this last admonition into not going anywhere near the bathroom or running water in general. In short, I truly internalized Mrs. Keltner‘s advice, to the point where I became deathly afraid of lightning, even after I’d finished third grade and headed on to fourth. And fifth. And sixth, and so on. But one memory stands out above all others in this regard.

The summer after I’d finished third grade, our family took a vacation to the Ozark Mountains. The trip was going fairly well until late one afternoon, when my parents decided to go to an outdoor play called “The Shepherd of the Hills,” which was held on the outskirts of as-then-undiscovered Branson, Missouri. We drove down a gravel road to a field that was set up for parking, and just as we were about to leave the car, I saw on the horizon one of the meanest looking storms I had ever seen. To this day, I have seen nothing that compares to its sheer ugliness. The sky had turned a deep, dark green above a narrow ribbon of sunshine. It looked unbelievably disturbing, and I was terrified. I began crying hysterically, fearful that my parents would insist that we leave the car to watch what by now I am sure I had dubbed “this stupid play.” Of course, my parents would never have done such a thing, but still, I was beyond help and was having a total meltdown.

"The Shepherd of the Hills" in progress
As with many summer storms, the green cloud turned gray, the rain poured in sheets, and then the whole thing was over. It was then safe to leave the car, but there was still the play to endure.

When you are nine years old, even an hour seems like an eternity, but seriously, "The Shepherd of the Hills" had to have lasted almost three hours. For all that time, we were perched on hand-hewn, uncomfortable, wet wooden benches. The play seemed to go on forever, and although it was billed as family entertainment, I couldn’t really follow the plot, but at least there was no lightning, so that was good. When it was over, I told my parents how sorry I was that I had acted so dramatically, but they seemed to understand, and by the end of the evening, the vacation was back on track.

In the many years since, I’ve seen my share of inclement weather, having lived through Memphis tornadoes, Chicago blizzards, and some wicked Southern heat, but still, nothing rattles me like lightning. If I am parked only twenty feet from the entrance to a store or restaurant during a storm, I will generally run like hell to the door, effectively folding time and space to get inside. I know Mrs. Keltner would be proud that I have heeded her warnings. Every time I see broadcasts from the “Severe Weather Center," which in Atlanta generally runs up the flag when we are having no more than an eighth of an inch of rain, I think of her and how she cared for her flock.

Bless you, dear Mrs. Keltner, for your lightning obsession. I’d rather be safe than sorry. And by the way, I just looked up “The Shepherd of the Hills” on Wikipedia, and you know, the plot doesn’t really look too awful. Maybe I’ll give it another try, but this time, I’ll wait until the sun is shining.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

True Colors

I found myself in an odd, but strangely familiar, situation today. I had eaten a healthy steamed chicken and broccoli entree for lunch, but I was still hungry, so about two hours later, after a bit of light shopping, I stopped by a McDonald's drive-thru, then pulled over into a parking lot to eat my second lunch, because honestly, I just couldn't wait any longer. That alone was bad enough, but the really sad thing was that the lot where I was wolfing down my food was outside an LA Fitness gym. I sighed and resigned myself to errant behavior, but soon, the addictive flavor of the french fries washed over me and erased any sense of guilt I might have had. That's when I noticed them.

Two young men stepped out of their vehicles, stopped to say hello to each other, and headed into the gym. Both were rather heavily tattooed, with buzz cuts that gave them a rough and ready air. They strutted into LA Fitness, muscles a-blazing, and it was then that I remembered that once upon a time, I sort of walked in those shoes. Of course, there were a few differences. For one, I don't have any tattoos. (I got a temporary lizard tattoo on a 2007 weekend trip with friends after we had consumed a very large amount of light beer, and it scared the bejesus out of my friend Neharika, whose childhood home in India had been plagued by lizards. Since that time, I have not messed with tattoos.) Also, my haircut is a simple 3.5 clippers "do" that is very easy to maintain but still has a Baby Boomer One Step Removed look about it.

My commonality with the two modern gentlemen harks back to 1988, when I spontaneously decided that a) I needed to take more vitamins and b) I needed to get more exercise. A new gym named Sportslife was opening in the area, and they were signing up people at an attractive introductory rate. I braved it one evening and headed over. The very first thing the trainer did was to line us all up and give us a fitness evaluation. The group numbered about ten, and we were pretty equally distributed by gender. We were asked to perform various calesthentics, including a series of push-ups and sit-ups. Sit-ups have always been a weakness of mine, and I only made it to about eight or nine. The young woman next to me, on the other hand, attired in a brilliant yellow outfit with coordinated leg warmers and matching shoes, did 25 without missing a beat. She didn't even look tired. I realized at that point that I had a long way to go.

To make a long story short, I joined Sportslife and became a regular. I worked out three times a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, for about an hour and a half per session. I was religious in the order I did things and cycled through a combination of circuit training, cardio, and free weights that just made for the perfect workout. I began to see results, and that was encouraging. At one point, I could set a StairMaster on its 8 out of 10 setting and easily climb for 20-25 minutes. If I tried to do that now, paramedics would need to be on call. Yet, I was doing this three times a week and feeling absolutely incredible. But the exercise alone wasn't the whole experience -- part of it was a visual thing, and here's where I contrast the experience with that of today's gyms.

Sportslife was a product of the 1980's, and if you actively participated in the 80's, you remember such things as bright colors, form-fitting attire, Big Hair, and color-coordinated scrunchies. The gym itself was architecturally stunning, and everyone in it looked at least somewhat happy, even though, let's face it, we were all glistening profusely. On any given day or evening, the place was populated by a dedicated group of exercising fools, dressed in every color of the rainbow. And this didn't apply only to women -- we men had our own scintillating array of duds. I owned a nice pair of Nike white and teal training shoes, three pairs of stretch athletic tights in black, blue, and purple, and t-shirts in a plethora of colors. You would think that I would have stood out like a sore thumb, but I didn't. This was because Joe Schmo, weighing in at around 250 with biceps the size of Staten Island, would also be wearing a brightly colored outfit, as would all the other guys who made their way through the locker room. Drab was out, flash was in, and it was a grand time. I was in the best shape of my life, and honestly, I felt like a million bucks.

But somewhere in time, many people, and especially men, began to be fearful of color. We all remember how 80's neon gave way to 90's grunge, so it wasn't just a gym thing. Over time, I had let my Sportslife membership lapse, so when I once again joined a gym in the late 1990's, first a YMCA and then some years later, LA Fitness, I noticed that everything had taken on this monotonic variation of gray and black. It wasn't just the clothes, but the people, too. No one seemed to really smile at gyms any more. The atmosphere had become street-ready and aloof, and it made me uncomfortable, so I let it go and started walking for exercise, which I've maintained to this day. Who knows? It may turn around, and we may find ourselves back in a convivial workout universe. I would like for that to happen, but I'm holding on to a memory, I guess.

I still have those purple workout tights. They only measure about a foot across at the top. Every few years, during a clothing purge, I'll try them on, just for old time's sake, but I just can't bring myself to give them away, because they remind me how good I felt back then. I can't wear them for any measurable amount of time, because my circulation would be cut off, and given my recent experiences with eye issues and kidney stones, I just don't need anything else. But you know, I still think there's a special place in the world for spandex.