Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Birds

It was the summer of 1969, and I was in California with my aunt and uncle at their home in Camarillo, a Ventura County community about an hour northwest of Los Angeles.  Camarillo was a pretty town with a gentle Mediterranean climate -- it was possessed of an unassuming, natural beauty.  On any given summer morning, I would awaken to the smell of fresh eucalyptus and the soft cooing of hundreds of pigeons.  My uncle, a Methodist minister, had raised pigeons since his teens.  During his tour of duty in World War II, he had even raised pigeons to be used as message carriers.

Back in 1969, I was still bicycle bound, and generally by eight or nine in the morning, I had made my daily pilgrimage up Anacapa Drive to a small parking lot outside the local elementary school.  From that lot, I could look down on the entire Pleasant Valley. In those days, development hadn’t quite made it over from Thousand Oaks and past the Conejo Grade, and all the houses in town were forties to sixties vintage, some marked by creative scrollwork and soft pastel colors.   Landscape plantings were generally tasteful, and in a few cases, somewhat extravagant.  The fog would burn off by about 9:30, and then, looking down over the valley, I would marvel at the beauty and peacefulness of it all.   A great time and place to be a kid.

Some days, my uncle and I would leave the placid neighborhood for a little bit of adventure.  Among the many varieties of pigeons provided for by my uncle were the racers, who had to be trained in the fine art of flying back home from afar.   Getting up well before sunrise ("before day", as my uncle always said), we would place all the birds fit to fly into four to six specially made wooden crates, each with a little trap door for inserting or removing the unwilling participants, and then we would load them into the bruised old white Ford F-100 pickup and clamp the tailgate shut.

Most days, we headed toward the community of Ojai, then through the backcountry to Goodenough Road, which ran alongside a lively little mountain stream leading into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary (in those days, only a handful of condors remained).  We would hop down from the truck, pull out the crates, and then give the birds a couple of minutes to acclimate to their surroundings before opening the carriers.

Once the birds were released, they circled the immediate area for several minutes, and then they headed off in the general direction of home.  Some birds were leaders, others were stragglers.  There was, of course, no way that my uncle and I could ever consistently reach the house before the birds, so we took our time getting home.  Sometimes we would stop for a cold, frosty glass of A & W root beer at the little stands on the fringes of the smaller towns.  On other mornings, we might stop and chat with a perfect stranger out doing some morning field work at the Julius Goodman egg farm.

As the birds became progressively more experienced navigating the route home, we would take them farther away.  Eventually, by the end of the summer, we were heading up into the coastal mountains.  A favorite release site was Mount Pinos, with an elevation somewhere between eight and nine thousand feet.  This was truly wild, spectacular country, with crisp, clean air and almost ethereal light and color.  I felt as if we were closer to heaven.

There are several theories addressing how pigeons return home.  At least one of these involves the birds’ ability to map spectral contours, following patterns of visible and invisible light.  Now, looking back on summers with the birds, it occurs to me that on those crisp, crystalline mornings, the world looked so pure and bright that I could almost see that light myself.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Contraband

Back in the 1950's, my family experienced a significant life event which is now commonplace but in those days was not an everyday occurrence -- one of the kids moved across the country.  My uncle, a young Methodist minister, had been serving for some time as a "circuit rider" in three small churches around Black River Falls, Wisconsin.  (This practice was de rigueur in those days, particularly in areas with small towns and few pastors.)  I don't know the exact circumstances, but at some point, my aunt and uncle got the opportunity to move to California.  Since my aunt was a native of Bakersfield (home of country music legend Buck Owens), I believe this was probably a good opportunity to get closer to her family.  Given that my uncle had grown up in Tennessee, I guess you might say he already had a head start on the rest of the family when it came to relocation.

Before too long, my grandmother and grandfather decided to follow suit.  I mean, after all, what was a simple move from Tennessee to California?  It wasn't really that far, especially in a car with no air conditioning at a time when flat tires were commonplace.  My grandmother, a wonderful storyteller, related their story to me, and it's always been one of my favorite family tales, because it truly exhibits a sense of complete disregard for stated rules, and let's face it, there's a certain amount of enjoyment in that for all of us.

It seems that the moving trip west for Grandma and Grandaddy along Route 66 was going well until they reached the border of New Mexico and Arizona...that's when everything went a bit sour.  When you travel west, you are stopped at the NM-AZ border to make sure you are not bringing in fruit, because it can introduce unwanted insects into the local ecosystems, which are heavily dependent on agriculture.  A border guard, doing his duty by checking this car with Tennessee license plates, innocently asked them what they were carrying.

My grandfather, a stern man of German heritage with an engaging Southern accent, replied, "Nothin'."  But this was not to be the end of it.  The border guard continued his line of questioning.

"Well, sir, I guess we'll need to see what's in the trunk of your car."

Not to be taken lightly, my grandfather barked back, "I ain't opening it up."

At this point, my grandmother became somewhat nervous...after all, this was an officer of the law.  Seeing a big rug that they had tied to the top of the car, she somehow could predict what was coming next.

"Well then, sir, if you won't open the trunk, you'll have to tell me what that thing is up on top of your roof."

It would suffice to say that my grandfather, a reasonable man in his way, felt that some line had been crossed, and he wasn't having any of it.  He took one more look at the officer and with a grave face, and every ounce a Tennessean, he replied, "It's mah STILL."

At that point, the border guard gave up and let them pass.  I don't know anything about the rest of the move, and Grandma didn't seem to recall all that clearly either, but I don't think that really matters.  The important thing was that Grandma and Grandaddy were allowed to pass into Arizona and on to California, and soon, they became settlers of the New West.  After a few short months of acclimation, they located some Southern food, and all was well.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Savannah Story

Despite having lived in Atlanta since 1982, except for two years in Charlotte, it was not until 2005 that we finally ventured over to Savannah as a family.  Savannah is a great town, full of color and character.  A good rule of thumb is that if you like Charleston, you'll probably like Savannah.  Anyway, we'd thought about going for years, so we finally made it down and booked ourselves into the Marshall House on East Broughton Street.  My friend Jenny had stayed there not long before as part of a wedding party, and since Jenny has very good taste, I figured this would be a great place to land, and indeed, it was.

Lafayette Square, Savannah
Savannah is dripping with history.  For those of you not familiar with the city, it is nice to know a little background.  Savannah was founded in 1733 by Colonel James Oglethorpe, and it was the first state capital of Georgia.  Today, it is a thriving seaport, and its downtown area is comprised primarily of a historic district containing 22 squares, originally designed as spaces for public military exercises, but today used as leafy oases through which to stroll or simply to sit and relax.  When you enter Savannah from the west on I-16, you are immediately deposited at the intersection of Liberty and Montgomery Streets, and right away, you feel as if you have entered "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", the 1994 mystery novel set in Savannah.  Live oak trees span overhead, and beautifully restored historic homes face each other along stately streets.  It's something like waking up in a dream.  But as beautiful as Savannah is, this particular blog post revolves not around the area itself, but rather around one of its residents.

Gallery Espresso
On a sunny morning during our visit, while the girls were still asleep in the hotel room, I decided to venture out for a morning walk.  Most days, when I go walking, I shoot for 3.1 miles, a standard 5K walk, and in Savannah, achieving that is no problem whatsoever; in fact, just strolling from square to square, you will be surprised at how much ground you cover, since there's something to see or some shop to wander into on almost every corner.  As I made my way back to the hotel, I spotted an interesting looking coffee shop named Gallery Espresso, which fronted prominently on Bull Street, one of the major thoroughfares in the historic district.  I pulled off my headphones, got in line, ordered up a nice morning latte, and then took a seat in one of the overstuffed chairs next to a low table along the front windows, where I proceeded to peruse a book about the Civil War.  It all seemed so perfect -- sitting in Savannah, reading a book about the War, and sipping a flavorful latte.

Within a few minutes, I was joined by an elderly matron dressed in a rich pink pantsuit adorned with silver sequin appliques, who was holding in her arms an obviously well cared-for miniature dachshund.  She asked if she could join me at my table, and I responded that I would be delighted if she did.  (After all, we were in the genteel South.)

Now, it is important to the story to understand that Gallery Espresso, like a Parisian cafe, welcomes with open arms both customers and their dogs.  There is no canine discrimination here.  And truly, the little dachshund appeared to be quite at home.  I started the conversation by complimenting the lady on her adorable dog, and I mentioned that my aunt and uncle had raised miniature dachshunds in California in the mid-Sixties.  This led to some pleasant back-and-forth about the nature of the breed, previous dogs owned by each of us, and so on.  When I asked the dog's name, she replied in her undeniably Savannah accent, "Well, her name is Miss Eloise."

Within a few minutes, my companion's cappuccino was served, and as she took her first sip, she said, "I give her coffee every mornin', and she seems to like it...I don't think it hurts her," and then proceeded to place a spoon of cappuccino froth to the dog's lips.  This was met with a sense of tremendous gratitude from Miss Eloise, who obviously had imbibed caffeine-containing beverages on numerous occasions.

We continued chatting, and after a time, my new found friend remarked, "You know, the really nice thing about Miss Eloise is that she is not afraid of otha' dogs...watch this."  At that moment, she turned Miss Eloise to face a very large dog which was standing in the coffee line with its owner, a dog which was probably eight times the size of Eloise.  When the little diva caught sight of the larger dog, her ears immediately perked up, and she turned full attention to the massive new four-legged patron.  But after only a moment, she completely lost interest in the giant newcomer, smoothed down her ears, and then turned back to her owner, waiting patiently for the next sip of cappuccino.  At that point, my drinking companion casually reiterated, "See what I mean?  She is simply not afraid of otha' dogs."

Along River Street at sunset
At that point, I felt as if I had seen a little of the true Savannah, the city of legend.  I polished off the remainder of my latte, excused myself and took leave of Miss Eloise and my new friend, but in truth, I could have stayed at Gallery Espresso for a bit longer.  I could only imagine what kinds of experiences Miss Eloise might have in a typical day.  Would she dine with society ladies at tables set with antique crystal and china?  Would she go for a pedicure at precisely 4:00 PM, after the crowds had thinned?  Or would she stroll proudly past those waiting in line at The Lady and Sons restaurant, as if to say, "Excuse me everyone, but I am a local"?  So many questions, so little time, and we were only there for a weekend.

I resolved to return to Savannah soon and often.  I'm still trying to make good on that promise, but when I do, I plan to make Gallery Espresso one of my first stops.  I can only hope that I will again be greeted by Miss Eloise and her genteel owner...that would make for the perfect day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Grand Prix, Southern Style

Lately, I've been thinking of writing an article about Atlanta driving.  Many of you locals reading this blog will be quite familiar with the things I'm about to say, but for others, there may be some surprises.  Don't get me wrong, I love my home city, but we have a monopoly on novel driving techniques, and I say this having driven all over the United States.  Let's just go ahead and rev up the engine, shall we?

Headed home in the afternoon
To begin, Atlanta is one of those large metropolitan areas that spreads in every direction.  It has no natural barriers other than a couple of rivers (we would have called them "creeks" when I was growing up in Tennessee) which might otherwise halt development, so over the years, it has sprawled like a sleeping lion.  Now, getting from the farthest reaches of northern suburbia to the farthest southern counterparts requires at least two hours plus, and that's cruising at expressway speeds with good traffic.  Fortunately, our roads are in very good condition, so that helps, because we certainly see enough of them.

The problem we have is our secondary roads.  They wind thread-like through leafy green neighborhoods, and they carry an enormous amount of traffic, much more that would be expected.  When you first visit or move to Atlanta, you are always getting lost, because the major roads are laid out along the vestiges of Indian trails...there is no grid system whatsoever.  Growing up in Memphis, driving was relatively easy...I was all over town without much trouble by the time I was 17.  When I lived in Chicago, I commuted into downtown every day for years, traversing the Loop like a cab driver.  But when I moved here, it was like starting all over again, because I could not determine in which direction I was traveling at any given time.

The truly fabulous thing about Atlantans, however, is that we drive as if we know precisely where we're going, and generally, we do this at a fairly high rate of speed.  This is ironic, given the preponderance of two-lane roads throughout the area.  Tiny roads often have higher speed limits than divided thoroughfares...it's all backwards.  And navigation is off the charts, pardon the pun, because when people visit, one of their most common lines is, "I surely hope you know where you're going!"  And yes, we actually do, and that's the scary part.

Because of the difficulty of navigation, coupled with the extremely high traffic volume, Atlanta drivers have developed a keen sense of using parking lots, drive-thrus, and gas stations to get where they're going.  One day, I missed my entrance to our local mall, and I decided to cut through a bank parking lot to get there.  Before I knew what had happened, someone had actually passed me on the left while I was cutting through the lot.  Such is life.

Somehow, we make it all work.  I think we've become so inured to the whole process that we consider getting around as something of an adventure.  The best advice I can give is to grab a cold drink, crank up some decent music, turn on the nav system (if you have one), and then just sit back and enjoy the ride.  After all, you'll eventually get where you're going, maybe not quite on time, but this is the South after all, and people generally understand.

Of course, I'm still trying to figure out how to get into the parking lot of Pollo Loco on Holcomb Bridge in Roswell.  If any of you locals know the secret, please shoot me an email.  I'm desperate.

Monday, March 14, 2011

From the Ground Up

For some time now, I've been wondering whether I will ever be able to procure a vacuum cleaner which actually picks dirt up off the floor.  We are barraged with a flurry of sophisticated electronic devices which can put the world into the palm of our hands, but just try to find a decent vacuum cleaner...it's next to impossible.

Back in the day (the "day" being the late 1950's and early 1960's), the Electrolux was the king of vacuum cleaners.  Not only would this vacuum pick up any unchewed pieces of dog biscuits, it would pick up the entire dog if not handled carefully.  Its spartan appearance (see picture at right) masked its true power.  My grandmother had one of these, and when it was brought out, I remember that I tended to behave myself, because to be honest, I was somewhat scared of the thing.

For years, we've tried to find the perfect vacuum, and there have been a couple of good contenders.  Once upon a time, we purchased a Panasonic, though from our recollections, Panasonic seemed more like the brand you would rely upon for a decent clock radio than a vacuum.  But nevertheless, this Panasonic canister cleaner was a workhorse, and it survived almost thirteen years.  Granted, this vacuum was doted upon and taken to a special repair shop here in Atlanta which catered to its every whim.  When we moved to Charlotte for a couple of years, it began to exhibit strange and unpredictable behavior, due in large part, or so I believe, to a feeling that we no longer cared for or nurtured it as we had in Atlanta.  Within a year or two, it was toast.

We had an ancient Hoover vacuum cleaner which belonged to my wife's grandmother, and of course, it ran for many years, but it also weighed approximately forty pounds, so it never got to the upstairs of our house.  In fact, I think we might have given it away, come to think of it.

New vacuums come with thousands of attachments.  The average out-of-the-box vacuum cleaner contains approximately 5,710 doodads, including a couple of screws which, once loosened, can never be re-tightened to their original torque.  But that doesn't really matter, because after six months, you have lost half the attachments anyway. There are attachments for everything -- upholstery, car seats, antique furniture, shag carpets, garage floors -- you name it.  But forget all those, because you and I both know that only one attachment will really work.

Aesthetics come into play as well.  Take the Dyson, for example -- this vacuum cleaner reminds me of some type of alien life form.  The designer is evidently extremely proud of his invention and hosts a series of entertaining TV commercials, although I have heard from assorted friends that the machine itself doesn't actually suck up dirt so well.  But that's to be expected -- after all, you can't have everything.  Then there's the Roomba.  The Roomba is a robotic vacuum cleaner.  Our neighbors have one, and their house always looks nice and clean.  The Roomba just sits there rather unassumingly -- it appears to be a solitary device which does not require much in the way of human interaction.  I'm partial to the Oreck line of vacuums, because they appear rather old-fashioned and functional, which most likely means that they actually pick things up off the floor.

The popular big box electronics retailer Fry's sells a plain brown box vacuum that I like.  I can't remember the brand name, but it's made for some company in Brooklyn, and it's a totally no-frills creation.  My guess it that it will pick up anything, anywhere, forever.  This particular vacuum isn't on the Frys.com website, because you have to see it to believe how downtempo it really is.  I'm tempted to buy one just for grins.

So I'm thinking of going back full circle, with a retro approach to vacuuming, but there's still one thing that bothers me just a bit.  Back in the day, my Aunt Alma had a black poodle named Tangeroo, which she always called "Tangewoo." Aunt Alma was the first relative I knew who owned a color TV, so periodically, we would venture over to watch Hogan's Heroes and Gomer Pyle: USMC, during which times we could always tell that Tangeroo was in the house, due to his characteristic (and unfortunately, pervasive) scent.  Aunt Alma always kept her house clean, but when we would visit, all we could smell was Tangewoo, and she had an Electrolux, as I recall.  I suppose that, after all, even the best vacuums can't pick up everything.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Going Home

You guys know me by now...I'll post blog entries about anything from insects to absinthe. But I have wanted for some time to post a very personal entry about a trip I made last year, a trip back to Memphis, where I grew up during the Sixties and Seventies. This particular trip was for a reunion of the Mullins Methodist One Way Singers, a youth choir of which I was a part back in those days. Actually, I was a guitar player for the band which accompanied the group, and I suppose I wasn't always on the best of behavior, but my heart was always in the right place, and I loved this group.

Through the years, I've had several chances to attend high school and college reunions, but I have to admit that I've never gone. I've always heard stories about how people get nervous before attending, how they fret about their looks, what others might think of their accomplishments or perceived lack thereof, or whether the same petty differences that plagued them in earlier years might persist. I didn't feel any of that prior to the Mullins reunion, because I really wanted to see these friends again. I was just incredibly excited to have the opportunity to be back with this group and with people who had meant so much to me.

The musical and cultural landscape was quite different during the period this choir was active, and living in Memphis, we grew up surrounded by music. Much of it at the time was so-called "Jesus Rock", which had arrived on the scene in the late Sixties. We formed the One Way Singers one Sunday night in 1971, after collectively listening to Jesus Christ Superstar as part of our Methodist Youth Fellowship meeting program. We surveyed our skills and found that we indeed had a large enough number of people of different voices, as well as assorted crazy musicians (including yours truly), to make a go of it, and that's exactly what we did.

For the next four years, give or take a few months, we toured and performed at venues ranging from Texas to Canada to Florida. I will never forget the excitement of those days when we played our first really large "venues", churches who were eager to host a touring choir and to hear the unique blend of folk/rock that characterized our sound in those days. We rehearsed diligently, starting every Sunday afternoon about 4:00, and continuing until our evening youth programs began around 6:00. At its peak, the choir numbered over 120 people, with a band generally consisting of six or more -- two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, and percussion. I had played music for years -- piano, trumpet, french horn, and guitar -- but I had never felt such a rush as that I experienced when playing for so many people when we had the music "down", well-rehearsed and ready to deliver. The feeling was absolutely incredible, and we had experiences on those tours that will always stay with me.

So I jumped at the chance to reunite with this group last summer. A small group of us hung out most of the weekend, and we talked incessantly, staying up late and trying hard to catch up on all that had happened in the thirty-plus years since we'd been together. Each night, as we headed to our respective hotels and homes, we went back filled with excitement.

The reunion proper consisted of a barbecue dinner (after all, we were in Memphis) and rehearsal on Saturday night, followed by performance of three pieces of music at the regular Sunday service the next morning. These were three pieces that we'd sung so many years before, and it was interesting that even after all this time, the characteristic nuances of expression remained in our voices. I had brought along my Stratocaster, but I decided at the last minute to plug my baritone pipes into the choir -- I'd never sung these songs, just played them, but years of choral singing here in Atlanta enabled me to change gears on the fly, and it was fascinating to be a voice for a change. Looking out into the congregation, seeing faces I hadn't seen since 1972 or 1973, and being back in this familiar, warm, loving place, was a tremendous emotional experience, somewhat overwhelming, and also something I shall never forget.

So, "verily I say unto you", if you have the opportunity to experience a reunion of people this close to your heart, you should make every effort to attend. My weekend at home -- and over time, there have been moments when I forgot what home was about -- was an inspired gift that I will always treasure. Go home when you have the chance...go home and find peace. And when you do, remember that it is the accumulation of experiences that ultimately makes us who we are.