12/29/15

J.E. and the Violet Ray

It was probably a little over ten years ago that I first encountered J.E. He was a close friend of my stepfather and lived his whole life in and around Sevierville, Tennessee, just a stone's throw from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One morning, I stopped in for breakfast with my stepfather and his friends, who met each morning at the local Hardee's on Highway 411, adjacent to Tractor Supply and Big Lots. They called themselves "The University," owing to their rambling, yet quasi-scholarly opinions on subject matter far and wide.

I observed that one man was highly animated, a major contributor regardless of the topic at hand, and the only name I heard anyone call him was "J.E." On that memorable morning, J.E. related to me a story, the essence of which I will attempt to reproduce here. The language is as close as I can recall to what he actually said.
"Well, Richard, I had been havin' this problem with real bad pain in my arm, so I went to see this feller right up here on 66 (Tennessee Highway 66, which runs north from Sevierville up to Interstate 40). I heard he was good. And he was a medical doctor...he had a certificate on the wall and ever'thing.'
'I sat down and told him what was both'rin' me, and he pulled out this thang in a lo-o-o-ng black box. He plugged it into the wall, and then he run it right over my arm a few times, and just like 'at, the pain was GONE. I mean, it was GONE.'"
Surely, one cannot witness such an account without experiencing a rush of curiosity, and I was no exception. Having told the story to countless friends in the intervening years, I'd often wondered exactly what the device had been. As fate would have it, while browsing a large antiques store here in Atlanta over this past weekend, I happened to see a long black box with a plug coming out of it, so I went over to have a closer look.

Sure enough, I had hit pay dirt. There it was, the same type of instrument to which J.E. had been referring. Within the box was a wand-like tool and a couple of glass tubes, which would appear to be illuminated when inserted into the wand. A hand-written label attached to the power cord read, "Western Coil and Electric Co. -- Quackery -- not intended for use. $124.99." I had to know more.

I Googled the name of the company and discovered that indeed, such devices were commonplace in the early twentieth century and were used in a medical practice known as electrotherapy, which involved applying high voltage, high frequency, low current electrical stimuli to the surface of the body. The machines were collectively known as "violet ray" devices and were manufactured until after the Depression, when the companies who made them redirected their production efforts to making wartime equipment and other assorted electrical components.

Wikipedia provides an excellent description of violet ray technology, which was actually introduced by Nikola Tesla prior to 1900:
"A typical violet ray device consisted of an ungrounded electrical control box that controlled the interrupter and which housed the magneto coil, and an attached bakelite or other handle housing which contained the high voltage coil and an insertion port for attachments. Glass evacuated tubes of varying shapes and for different therapeutic uses could be inserted into the bakelite handle to apply the resulting current to different parts of the body."
Granted, the FDA may have seized all the violet ray devices in the early 1950's, but that didn't stop J.E.'s healthcare professional, Lord have mercy on his soul, from finding the right instrument to treat his patient's ailing arm in the new millennium. Besides, these devices were purported to help remedy everything from brain fog to catarrh, and that's no small feat. Quackery? I think that's jumping to conclusions, a premature assessment. The way I see it, when you've got something that works, stick with it.

10/1/15

Groomsman

There it is in the picture to the right -- that's my daily personal care armamentarium, at least as of this moment. My wife laughs at me and tells me I use more than the normal number of potions, but hey, "this" doesn't come easy. A guy has to work at it, you know. What's notable about this array of products is that it is not stable. I wish it were, but manufacturers are constantly swapping offerings in and out of their lines, and they seem to be especially reckless with men's products. Maybe they're thinking that we won't complain, but I'm here to let them know that's not the case.

Take after shave. These days, I double dog dare you to find the same after shave lotion or balm twice in a row. For example, I used to use a Neutrogena product that contained a built-in 20 SPF sunscreen, because I figured that would be a good, healthy thing. But within a short period of time, that product had disappeared, only to be replaced with a version which did not contain sunscreen. But now I see that the sunscreen version has returned to the shelves. The same thing happens all the time with all kinds of products. Of course, there are times when you discover something new and good in the process.

One afternoon in the very early 80's, I was shopping at the Old Orchard Marshall Field's in suburban Chicago, and I needed some after shave. In those days, I bought "real" after shave, the kind sold only in department stores. As I perused the offerings, a pleasant female sales associate, some years my senior, asked if she could be of assistance, and when I told her what I was looking for, she asked if I'd ever considered a balm instead of a straight lotion. When I told her I hadn't, she asked me to hold out my hand, and she would apply some Chanel Antaeus to it so that I could feel the texture. When I told her how nice it felt, she said, "Why would you shave your face, then splash it with something containing alcohol?" I replied that I had no answer for that savage male practice and that it stung immensely. She then said, "You should use a balm. It's better for your skin. Women know this." I committed this statement to memory. Needless to say, I left Field's with my first bottle of Antaeus, and it would not be my last. It's still on the market, but it's kinda pricey.

The study of shaving cream/gel/foam is something for which you could probably earn an advanced degree. As you may be able to see from the picture, I've opted lately for a cream. That's what men used to use many moons ago, and I became interested in it when I saw a man shaving with it in an old black and white movie. He was applying something to his face that I could barely see, but it seemed to work. (I don't think he was bleeding, but then again, it was a black and white movie, so it was hard to tell.) Anyway, he was using cream. Shaving gel lasts so long that you become quite tired of its fragrance after a while and want to move on to something else. I once had a can of Edge Sensitive Skin for over a year. Shaving foam, on the other hand, lasts approximately 35 seconds once it's applied to the face and has never been the same since Barbasol, which is still sold, but for something like $6.00 a can. And of course, you can never find the same shave cream twice in a row, except in the case of Cremo, which despite its odd name, smells of citrus and has such a pleasing fragrance that you don't want to ever stop shaving.

Shampoo for guys? Look out. There's an assumption that many men (and this may be true) want to use only one product for body wash, shampoo, and whatever else. The big manufacturers like Old Spice and Axe have catered to this with products which, although probably effective, often have scents which could peel the paint off walls. Other guys may not say anything when they catch a whiff of these, but I could not with a clear conscience wear them around my female friends. They would become distressed and avoid talking to me altogether. Plus, I sing in a choir, and you cannot wear stinky stuff when you sing with such a group, because that might disturb others around you, and they might start sneezing, which is not a good recipe for choral success.

I became more aware of using the "right" fragrance some years ago, when while walking into the office with my friend Swanzetta, she smiled at me and said, "Rico, what is that you're wearing? Mmm-um...ain't nothin' like a good smellin' man in the morning." I laughed, but took that statement to heart. Just as important as the right fragrance is the concept of discretion in its application. Back in the 80's, I worked in an office where one of our compadres loaded himself up every morning with Ralph Lauren Polo, the one in the green bottle with the shiny gold top. There's nothing inherently wrong with this time honored fragrance, but the amount that this fellow used was absolutely staggering. We could smell him heading our way from several aisles away. I vowed back then never to repeat that offense. I don't want to get sued by someone for respiratory damage or because they missed their solo.

So what to do? I'm thinking that maybe I should just stockpile my favorite brands, but I'm wondering if they have a shelf life. I have some eau de toilette that I've had since the 90's, and it still seems to smell okay, but I haven't field tested it, if you know what I mean. I have to be careful, being a baritone and all.

9/28/15

On Being a Morning Person

"Up, boy...rise and shine! Half a day's gone...there's work to be done."
-- Foghorn Leghorn

Back in the day, I'd awaken around 6:45 every morning, weekday or weekend, and it was always cold. Our apartment in Wilmette, a leafy suburb on Chicago's North Shore, had a big picture window that looked out over a pretty little courtyard. I'd make myself a cup of steaming hot coffee and settle down in one of our Pier 1 chairs (such a nice design, so comfy) to read the Chicago Tribune or make a little more headway in the latest book I happened to be reading. Over time, this ritual evolved into something more than a habit...it became a necessity. That was 35 years ago, and still, my mornings have to start with quiet time.

Those of you who spend a lot of time with me know that I rarely sit still, but morning is the time when I get all my thoughts together, and I love getting up earlier than necessary to savor it. I'm definitely not one of those "get to work at 7, leave at 4" people, because I need that time in the morning to putter around. I've been a fan of "Good Morning America" since the late 70's, when I traveled a lot for work and got hooked watching it in hotel rooms before I headed to the office. I can still remember David Hartman and Joan Lunden greeting me as I looked for a tie to match my suit at the LAX Marriott. I've followed the show all through the years and hosts, and now, it doesn't seem like a proper weekday morning until I've checked in with George Stephanopoulos, Amy Robach, Ginger Zee and the rest. They seem like family.

Weekend mornings are grand. There's absolutely no traffic, so I can head wherever in the city without running into a jam, which is quite pleasing. I love to walk for exercise, and I usually engage in my best urban explorations early in the morning. That's when I head into the city and scout out cool neighborhoods, making mental notes of where the good parking places are. By the time I return home, the day is in full swing, traffic has picked up, and I'm ready to go on to the next adventure. Of course, the downside to all this is that by around 2:00 in the afternoon, I'm usually whipped and ready for a nap, so if we happen to be out and about at that time, my wife will often do the driving, since I tend to fall asleep rather quickly (I'm a cat napper par extraordinaire).

This morning, as I write this, I'm beginning a much needed week long staycation, and I'm really looking forward to all these mornings. Today, I slept in until 7:05, but I'm thinking that will not be the norm. Half a day's gone by then, and I don't want to miss anything.

Ciao, y'all.

8/13/15

I Really Miss Manners


You know, it's funny, but the older we get, the more we begin to understand and appreciate the fundamental things that we are taught in our youth. Some, like looking both ways before crossing the street, might seem natural, but of course, someone has to first teach us those things, and then, hopefully, we remember them. Unfortunately, one thing appears to be missing in "life basic training" for many people these days, and that thing is manners.

Now, before I start to sound preachy or like some old fogey who is out of touch with modern civilization, let me say that this is absolutely not something that applies to all people, and it is certainly not a unique product of today's social climate -- ill-mannered people have always been out there. Nevertheless, it does seem to be rearing its head with amazing regularity these days, both in formal and informal contexts.

When I was brought up in the 1960's and 1970's, manners were an intrinsic part of child rearing. The terms "please" and "thank you" were expected to be part of one's everyday repertoire, to be used freely and actively in all situations. It didn't matter whether you were having dinner with your grandparents, borrowing your friend's bicycle, or buying crowder peas at the local farmer's market -- good manners were just expected, and I believe that in addition to "oiling" social situations, they provided an air of gentility which was far reaching. When I became a teenager of driving and dating age, I was instructed by my parents that I was never to arrive at a young lady's home and honk the horn for her to appear -- that was considered disrespectful and rude. I never questioned things like this, because to be honest, I totally agreed with them. If you can't walk up to someone's front door, why are you visiting them in the first place?

Manners are truly missed when they're not there, and I see this almost every day, even in professional situations. For example, I am amazed at the frequency with which people will carry on private conversations during business meetings. Typically, while one participant has the floor, two other people will begin talking to each other at a normal volume, not in a whisper, and often about something totally unrelated to the topic at hand. They may carry on this conversation for several minutes, oblivious to the fact that others are trying to listen and contribute. Good facilitators are adept at handling such things, but personally, I find them most annoying.

Quite often in the workplace, you'll be discussing something one-on-one with a co-worker, when suddenly, someone will walk in and just begin talking, assuming that their concern is front and center. When I see this, I generally don't say anything, but often, I will either walk out abruptly or give the intruding person a look that says, "Obviously, you were raised in a barn." Maybe I shouldn't do things like this, but I can't help it -- not interrupting peoples' conversations seems so basic to me.

As much as I love social media (and I do), it is rife with instances of bad behavior and lack of manners. This of course comes as no surprise to any of us who spend parts of our days connected to each other via the ether. I look at posting and messages this way: if I would be embarrassed to say something that I'm typing, I simply don't post it. Sure, I may not see that person again for years or maybe ever again, but what if I do, what then? It's awkward to come face-to-face with someone if you've just bashed their candidate or made a crude remark about their dinner preferences, so why even do such things?

I think it all comes down to the good old Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I know I really appreciate people thanking me, holding the door for me, or asking me whether I'd like the front or back seat when heading out to lunch. I truly believe that if we, as a human race, regardless of our ethnic origins, creeds, or musical tastes, all treated each other this way, it would be a much kinder and more peaceful world. Yes, I know I've gotten preachy in this post, but please forgive me, because this is something I feel so strongly about. I'll do my part for manners by saying "thank you" for reading all the way to the end.

8/4/15

Don't Take His Food

I realize that owing to more reasonable air fares and the march of time, many of you have probably never taken a really serious bus trip by yourself. You've probably taken city buses around town, tour buses on vacation, and made those group trips on chartered buses, the kind where you know almost everyone, but nothing quite compares to plopping your innocent self onto a commercial bus for a joyride of an appreciable distance.

Way back in 1977, I took such a trip, from Memphis to Los Angeles, ostensibly to look at graduate schools. I had earned my bachelor's degree at Northwestern University in Chicago and thought that I might like to pursue a PhD in either neurobiology or neuroscience. Two colleges on the West Coast, UCLA and UC San Diego, were at the top of my list. Actually, let's be honest...they really were the entire list by that time.

One afternoon in early October, I called my aunt and uncle in California and asked if I could stay with them while I visited the two schools. They said yes, and also asked if while I was there, I would mind helping them paint their house in preparation for moving my recently widowed Aunt Mary in with them. That sounded like an equitable arrangement, so I called around, finally deciding that taking the bus was a far more affordable alternative to any plane ticket I could find. And so it happened that on a Wednesday night in October, my mom and dad took me to the downtown Memphis Continental Trailways bus station, and I boarded a 7:00 PM bus bound for Los Angeles. My mom had even packed some food for me to take along on the trip, since it would last almost two days with no planned overnight stops.

When you take the bus, it's always a good idea to scan the human terrain, as it were, to determine who your traveling companions might be; after all, you're going to be in this deal for more than the few hours a typical flight takes. It seemed to me that we had a good cadre here: there were a couple of unaccompanied youth like me, a Quiet Young Man in a Service Uniform, and a group of Elderly Ladies Who Appeared to Already Know Each Other. I took the seat immediately behind the driver (you never know when you might have to make a quick exit in these cases), checked to make sure I had all my belongings, and tilted the seat back to a reclined and unlocked position. We pulled out of the bus station and headed west on I-40 toward our first stop: Little Rock, Arkansas.

I had made this trip twice before by car, so I knew what to expect from a landscape perspective. But because it was October and had therefore gotten dark early, one could see very little from the windows of the bus. We arrived in Little Rock a couple of hours later, and it was there that I realized how friendly people could be at bus stations. Complete strangers might walk up to you and want to be your friend, or so it seemed. Feeling that I had enough friends already, I grabbed a snack and headed back onto the bus. We had a new driver, who would take us to Oklahoma City.

We arrived in OK City in the "middle of the night." I recall waiting in the bus station as mysterious destinations were announced over the loudspeakers: places like Wichita, Cheyenne, Fort Worth and Amarillo. There were people everywhere, loaded down with suitcases and duffel bags, and it was only 4:00 AM. Somewhere along the line, I think I grabbed breakfast, but it was so early that I can't clearly remember. We hung out in the bus station for a little over an hour, then boarded the bus for our next stop, Amarillo.

It was important at any given time when at a bus station to keep an eye out for not only one's belongings, but also for others traveling on the same bus, because when your departure would be announced, you wanted to move as a unit to make sure no one was left behind. Given the limited number of people on the bus, you could always tell when someone "dropped off," and hopefully that was always intentional. After a while on the bus, it was like you got to know the people, at least in a casual way. I found that everyone on my bus was quite pleasant, and judging by their accents, they appeared to be from all over the country. Although I maintained my solo seat behind the driver, I did start to talk with a few of them on a regular basis.

We departed Oklahoma City as the sun rose, and we left the Interstate, opting for local highways where, according to the driver, we could pick up more passengers in the small towns along the route. I found this part of the trip fascinating. We passed through rolling hills full of swaying amber grass, every now and then encountering a small town which might have seen better days. Many of the towns looked straight out of the Old West, and were it not for the sidewalks, you could almost imagine horses hitched up while their owners quenched their thirsts at the local establishments. One memorable little town seemed to be built entirely of wooden structures with swinging doors that were only minimally attached to their frames.

At last we arrived in Amarillo, and since it was closing in on lunchtime, our driver recommended a local Mexican restaurant that was one of his favorites. This was common -- as we approached a city, the driver would call out this or that interesting place that we might check out while stopped. Drivers were changed every several hundred miles, so it was interesting to get the varying perspectives of each. In Amarillo, I didn't opt for the Mexican suggestion, but instead, grabbed something lighter and settled in with The Hobbit, which I'd just started to read. As I waited to board for our departure, I became rather engrossed with the first encounter with the character Gollum, and before I knew it, it was time to head out.

Early afternoon found us in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Above the ticket window I saw a small blackboard that listed the daily buses, one eastbound and one westbound each day. That was it. I took a seat in one of the church pews that the bus line had appropriated for seating and stared out the propped-open front door at the tumbleweeds rolling down the street. The scene reached perfection when "Luckenbach, Texas" began playing on the jukebox.

It wasn't much longer before we reached Albuquerque and the most modern bus station that we'd seen so far. Several of us dined together at the station cafe and then got back on the bus. As I took my seat, I noticed that the new driver was mounting some special CB radio equipment on the outside of the bus next to his rear view mirror, so I asked him what it was. He said, "Where we're goin', there ain't many people." Not to mention that it would soon be dark.

I've always enjoyed driving across New Mexico, and this was no exception. The colors of nature were on full display, and even as they faded to the more predominantly brown desert, the scene outside was still starkly beautiful. When we reached the border of New Mexico and Arizona, a uniformed agricultural inspector boarded the bus and told us that if we had any fresh fruit, we had to surrender it immediately. At that time, the state of Arizona, like its neighbor California, relied heavily on an agricultural economy and prohibited introducing fruit which might contain destructive non-native insects. I willingly handed the inspector a bag of oranges which my mom had packed for me for the trip, but the Elderly Ladies Who Appeared to Already Know Each Other would have none of this. In unison, they began scolding him by saying loudly, "Don't take his food! That's his food that his mother gave him...don't take it!" I stayed out of the fray and watched as the officer beat a hasty retreat, sliced my poor oranges and discarded them into a locked-top bin by the side of the road. I decided that I wanted these ladies on my side.

That drama having been completed, we ventured on into Arizona, which was remarkable, among other things, for having highly reflective signs pointing to national monuments you've heard of all your life but probably have not seen. (I've never visited the Painted Desert in the daytime, but I know precisely to get to it.) Somewhere along southbound I-17 on the way to Phoenix, the bus slowed down and came to a stop on the side of the road. Having traveled on many buses which have experienced mechanical failures and thereby landing me in places like Corsicana, Texas, I expected to be stopped for a while. There were no exits in sight, but there was a tiny motel on the top of a hill off the side of the road, and after we had stopped, the Quiet Young Man in a Service Uniform disembarked and walked up the hill to the motel. I hoped for his sake that he either had a rendezvous planned or that he at least knew someone up there.

Since the Trailways station in Phoenix was closed overnight, we pulled into the Greyhound station at about 3:00 AM and wandered around checking out the competition. There were numerous collectible lucite bus-shaped souvenirs to be had, but I did not feel that the purchase of one would have been appropriate, since by this time I had logged over 1,400 miles on Trailways. Aside from the lights in the souvenir display cases, the station was pretty dark, so we grabbed vending machine refreshments and headed back to the bus. The breakfast hour found us at Blythe, California, which is notable for generally being one of the hottest spots in the nation on weather reports.

Driver Number Eight had recommended a breakfast spot in Blythe, and we were not disappointed. The Courtesy Coffee Shop was like an untouched slice of 1955, and after a hearty breakfast at the counter, I walked back out to the parking lot, where the Elderly Ladies Who Appeared to Already Know Each Other had gathered. We laughed about the confiscation of the oranges, and one of them mentioned to me that her daughter lived in California, and that she made this trip several times a year from her home in Virginia Beach. I thought to myself that she was indeed a stronger person than I was.

It was now Friday morning, and the trip was nearing its conclusion. We made one last rest stop in the town of Indio, California. It dawned on me that I had been traveling with very little sleep and no bathing or shaving for almost two days, so when I finally looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I was horrified. How could someone who looked like this manage to have other people willingly talk to them? I cleaned up as best I could, then re-boarded the bus.

Some time around noon, Driver Number Nine wheeled us into the downtown Los Angeles bus station, where my uncle, a Methodist minister, was waiting to greet me. He, too, had been surprised at the overt friendliness of people at the station and mentioned how several complete strangers had walked up to him and wanted to be his friend. Alas, I thought, this commercial bus travel was something that more people should experience for themselves. In fact, I felt a bit sorry for fellow travelers who might have opted for an airline ticket, but surprisingly, on my way home several weeks later, I became one of them.

I could go on about how I visited the schools but later changed my direction in life, or how the house got painted while earth tremors were occurring, or how I almost got lost in downtown San Diego, but truly, the most memorable part of the trip was getting out there. My grandmother used to say that travel was the best education, and in many ways, I agree. These days, I've heard bus tickets can cost almost as much as plane tickets, but I'm glad I opted for the land based option way back when. It was educational, even though I lost a few oranges in the process. It was worth every one of them.

7/7/15

Between the Pages

Last night, I was shopping at Target for a few things. You know how it is: you go in looking for toothpaste and emerge with picture frames, dog food, and a garden hose, only to return home and remember that you forgot the toothpaste. Anyway, this trip was actually focused, but before I headed to the checkout line, I happened to notice some children's books on an end display, and that got me thinking back to a time just a few years ago when I might have added one of those books to my shopping cart. I have two grown daughters, and it doesn't seem that long ago that I read to them at bedtime.

Reading to kids at bedtime is something that has been part of our culture for generations. Those of you who are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or just have contact with children know that they truly look forward to bedtime stories. That "read me a story" entreaty is a very real thing, and it benefits everyone: I remember many otherwise rough days that were made immeasurably better by the time I spent reading to Sarah and Hannah. Some nights, I remember being so tired, leading me to pick a shorter, more familiar book. Other nights, we would explore something more complicated, on the order of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories." Often, the girls would have questions about what we had read together, and that could spur some great late night discussions, not to mention moments of hilarity. Nothing could top the lessons they learned from "Henry's Awful Mistake," where Henry the Duck insisted on battling a pesky ant and in the process, flooded his house. Even when you're a duck, that's a mess.

We had our favorites, and the kids knew the stories so well that they adopted and modified some of the lines, which eventually became part of our family vernacular. "Can you help hammer? Yes, sure can!" was Sarah's abbreviated version of a longer phrase, and before too long, my wife Karen and I found ourselves saying it to each other when we needed help doing chores around the house.

There was really no way to tell which books would be a hit -- certain titles just rose to the top. The copy of "Pat the Bunny" that we had for Sarah became worn to such an extent that the bunny was literally falling apart, but fortunately, we received a replacement as a gift before Hannah was born. Henry the Duck tried to squash the ant, then later took a trip out West in another book, and we followed him every inch of the way. Anatole the Mouse rode his bicycle through the streets of Paris and sneaked into a cheese factory, where he critiqued all the cheeses by placing tags on each. Farmer Wood found that if his farm got too far out of hand, his animals would take over and make all the needed repairs.

Last night at Target, all this came back to me while perusing those shelves of children's books. Every generation, parenting experts recommend new ways to raise children, but I hope that reading at bedtime is one of those practices that never goes out of fashion, because the benefits extend far beyond those formative years. Our girls are both avid readers whose language skills are called into practice almost every day of their lives, and I'm happy that Karen and I were part of developing that. But perhaps just as important is the immense satisfaction that comes from reading to children, the leveling effect it has on one's own day, and the lasting memories of good times spent together.

As a matter of fact, it's been quite a while since I've read the Henry the Duck stories. I think I might need a little refresher tonight when I hit the hay.

6/24/15

The Pinto Chronicles - Part Three

Leaving Colorado was something of a letdown; we knew that this was the last truly "Western" state that we would visit. Next stop -- Nebraska. But the adventure was not yet over. We stopped in Lincoln at the home of a former pastor of Paul and Peter's church and were treated to ice cold glasses of Schmidt Beer, except for Peter, of course, who received something softer. We played some pool, visited the local college, then headed out the next morning for the final leg of the trip.

Coming back through Missouri, we started to notice Southern accents once again. The pace had slowed, and the humidity had increased noticeably. At dinnertime, we pulled the Pinto into Grandma Grossheider's house. Paul and Peter's grandmother owned a farm outside Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where she maintained two small fishing ponds. For $1.50, you could sit by a placid little pond and pull out the fish. Grandma fed us well -- in her words, she fed us "a little something." After gorging ourselves on everything from ears of fresh corn to chicken, we bade farewell and started toward Memphis.

Driving down the last leg of I-55 from Cape Girardeau to Memphis, we reflected on all the adventures which the last three and a half weeks had provided. We would never really feel the same as before. Interstates, back roads, and places long forgotten by the mainstream had given us a road legacy to remember.

As we drove back across the Mississippi River bridge into Memphis, with the stars piercing the night sky and the lights of the city reflecting off the river, I thought about how vast and varied this country really was, not only physically, but culturally, spiritually and emotionally as well. Indeed, it was and is a superb place to be.

6/16/15

The Pinto Chronicles - Part Two

California is interesting. I'm sure that many of you have been there, or maybe you even live there (I know that a few of you do). I was born in Whittier, a suburb east of Los Angeles, well within the sprawling metropolitan area. My uncle is a retired Methodist minister who served for over thirty years in the Los Angeles Conference, so even though my parents had moved back East when I was very small, I had ample opportunities to visit over the years. For Paul and Peter, however, this was the first time they had visited or even been west of the Rockies, so there was a lot to take in.

Paul had slept outside on the patio at his aunt and uncle's in Alhambra after the long evening's drive, but when morning came, he appeared to be somewhat healed and was raring to go. And go we did. Over the next few days, we covered Greater Los Angeles like the best of tourists -- we hauled all the cousins and ourselves to Disneyland in the Pinto, visited Marineland of the Pacific (an early relative of Sea World), tried to get in to see a filming of "Barney Miller," visited Zuma Beach (my teenage beach), and spent a pleasant evening at Ports o' Call in Long Beach, where we stepped aboard the Queen Mary. All in all, it was a wonderful visit. But we still had many miles to cover.

After leaving the family in Alhambra, we headed north and spent a day or two with my own aunt and uncle in Camarillo, situated about fifty miles north of L.A. proper in Ventura County. It was great to see Aunt Ruth and Uncle Richard again. Aunt Ruth was a tall, beautiful, raven-haired woman who always appeared much younger than her years -- she taught me to play guitar when I was eleven, and she would periodically stop whatever she might be doing around the house to sit at her easel and paint. My Uncle Richard was and is probably one of the great storytellers of the South, and his relocation from Tennessee to the West with this talent was never lost on the people there. He and I had spent many days in the hills of California, exploring the back country while training his racing pigeons.

After a couple of days visiting with Uncle Richard and Aunt Ruth, it was time to head on. From this point forward, the whole trip would be new to me as well. Driving north up Highway 1, also known as Pacific Coast Highway or simply PCH, was a challenge in the Pinto. Having since owned a convertible, I would now relish the thought of driving this road, but back then, I was somewhat mortified. Here was this beautiful, no, make that gorgeous, landscape laid out in front of me, but my hands gripped the wheel tightly, and I could only appreciate the views when Paul resumed control. All in all, though, the day's drive was a good one, and we stopped for the night in Big Sur. And here I must pause.

Big Sur without a doubt possesses some of the most spectacular vistas to be found anywhere in the United States. You have probably seen them in numerous two-dimensional pictures, but you cannot be prepared for the visual feast which awaits you. Steep cliffs descend to the vast ocean below, and the coastline is charged with ever present breakers and flocks of seabirds. A stiff breeze blows off the ocean and whips back your hair. Across the road, stands of evergreens exude a wondrous fragrance.

But back to the details. We set up camp for the night at Ventana Campground. We had to hike up a hill to reach the site, but it was actually good to stretch the legs. The evening was worth it. I had brought along my acoustic guitar, which I always traveled with in those days, and looking down on the ground, I spotted a blue plastic pick, picked it up, and started to play. In the background was the sound of the surf. Needless to say, I kept that pick as a souvenir.

•••••

After a restful night, we broke camp and headed to San Jose, where Don, my college roommate from Chicago, was spending a few weeks with his brother George. Once again, we became part of an adopted family, resting by the pool and playing with the family's hefty but sweet malamute, who announced his arrival by licking the back of my neck as I rested in the water at the edge of the pool.

That first afternoon, we drove into San Francisco, where we took the Pinto through an ancient car wash that almost ate the molding off the front car doors. Boarding the ferry to Sausalito, we were astonished to find that this place was COLD. Standing on the deck of the ferry in a lightweight t-shirt, I looked enviously at the guy next to me, who sported a navy pea coat. He was probably comfortable.

We dined in Sausalito, then headed back over to San Francisco and tooled around for a bit longer before heading back to George's house. The next day, we toured the Winchester Mystery House, then did a bit more cruising around San Jose. Don's mother made us a wonderful, hearty Midwestern dinner that evening, and we gladly availed ourselves of this opportunity to eat real food again. Being energetic youths, we were accustomed to cruising at all hours of the day and night, so shortly after dinner, we decided to go out for a drive.

It was sunset, so we headed up a rocky road into the hills to gain a better view of the approaching twilight and the lights of the city. Suddenly, Paul stopped the car, or rather, the car was stopped. I still don't believe to this day that I saw this, yet it remains clear in my memory. Out of nowhere stepped a stern looking woman about sixty years of age, holding a rifle, with an ammunition belt slung across her shoulder. She recommended that we leave, and indeed, we took very little time in doing so.

Returning down the mountain, we stopped at a McDonald's for a brief respite, then headed back to the family at George's house. When we arrived, Don's mother, upon finding out that we had eaten a second dinner, was livid, in her own sweet way. "You boys went out to EAT after I had cooked you DINNER?" I felt about two feet tall, but as usual, she forgave us our foibles and we had a good laugh.

We made a second trip back into San Francisco the following day to see more local color, and then it was time to head on up the road. The next stop was Lake Tahoe.

Prior to heading out on our cross-country pilgrimage, Peter had purchased a new 35mm single lens reflex Pentax camera, which he had been using to its fullest advantage. Paul also had a Pentax, and I had purchased a small 35mm Konica in Camarillo, having brought only a small-frame Instamatic along. In other words, we made lots of stops for film along the way, and it was somewhere between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe that we saw it yet again -- the ubiquitous pairing of McDonald's and K-Mart. Wherever we would find a K-Mart, there was sure to be a McDonald's close at hand. This was convenient, in that any time we ran out of film, we would head to K-Mart for replenishment and there, lo and behold, was a convenient, predictable lunch.

Lake Tahoe -- what can I say? The clearest water I had ever seen outside of northern Arkansas' White River. We set up camp on the California side, at a campground where campers hang blankets on clotheslines to make fake walls around their sites. There was a general spirit of joie de vivre about the place which was infectious. And that was a good thing, because it was also chilly, which meant that Peter and I needed to scavenge for firewood while Paul heated up our dinner.

Locating suitable natural firewood at a large campground is not always an easy task. You find that you become quite creative. Yet Peter and I persevered, and within something close to thirty minutes, we returned to our site with arms of sticks and marginally acceptable kindling. We were hungry. But wait -- all we had was beans for dinner and yet the pot was close to empty. What had happened, we thought? The guilty look on Paul's face revealed the horrible truth -- in a fit of hunger, Paul had consumed a larger than normal share of the beans. But we couldn't be too mad at him, because Tahoe had cast its spell over us, and we were mellow fellows.

The next morning we got up, broke camp, and headed into the wilds of Nevada, entering at America's Biggest Little City, Reno. You could see the vestiges of the Old West in Reno. Without much effort, it was easy to imagine wooden sidewalks, horses tied to hitching posts, honky tonk pianos, and bar fights erupting behind swinging doors. We cruised on through and headed into the vast salt desert that comprises most of Nevada.

Not all parts of Nevada are like Las Vegas. There are places in the middle of the desert which are largely untouched by man, woman, or beast. The sun beats mercilessly down on a barren landscape, punctuated by tiny plants every now and then, but with little mercy for the traveler. We stopped at a rest area with a water fountain, above which a sign had been posted reading "Next Water is 78 Miles". A fellow traveler, a woman in her thirties, looked at the sign and said, "Oh, they must be kidding." No, ma'am, I think not.

This was a heads-down part of the drive. We stopped for the night at Winnemucca (pictured in a satellite photo at right). Winnemucca gets about eight inches of rain per year, and that fact was evident upon arrival. Weary from the drive, we found ourselves a comfortable, inexpensive motel and crashed for the night.

I knew something was amiss when I stepped into the shower and saw that the tilted floor had accumulated several days' worth of water. Hmmm. Looking out the bathroom window as I dried off, I could see some abandoned farm implements baking in the desert heat.

Clueless about where we might find dinner, we asked the desk clerk, a lady in her fifties who had obviously enjoyed a small toast of wine in the very recent past, for a suggestion. Slurring her words, she directed us to a "family restaurant" down the road. When we arrived there, we noticed that we had to walk through the obligatory casino prior to being seated at our table. (Remember that this was before the days of nationwide gambling, and casinos were only to be found in very few places.)

The waitress who served us our meal was a few years younger than we were, and she told us that she was working this summer job just to make a few bucks. She was curious about our appearance in Winnemucca, and when we told her a little about our trip and described a few places we had visited, she said rather plaintively, "Oh, wow -- I wish I could go the rest of the way with you." With our being in the middle of nowhere, as far as we could tell, we deemed it best to leave this one alone. Besides, the Pinto was already crowded enough with the three of us.

The next day took us out of Nevada and into Utah. The desert sand had whitened considerably, and before too long, we reached the Bonneville Salt Flats. We stepped out of the car long enough to watch a guy in a yellow Pantera pull off I-80 and onto the Flats, where he accelerated with abandon and headed off toward the horizon. The desert here provided a spectacular mirage, in that the hills in the distance appeared to float above the desert floor. But enough -- we still had to get to Salt Lake City by evening.

I-80 riding into Salt Lake presented us with even more unusual scenery. The Great Salt Lake itself appeared dark green in color, with definite hints of deep indigo. We stepped out of the car at a rest area and looked out over the briny, aromatic water. From seemingly out of nowhere, a band of motorcyclists roared into view. Looking down from the bluff where we were standing, we could see Hell's Angels emblems adorning the back of every rider's jacket. Interesting.

The drive into Salt Lake City was starkly beautiful, and the city itself was something of a treat for the eyes. Nestled on the side of a mountain, we could make out the Mormon Temple. Checking into a neat roadside motel, we ditched our bags and headed out to explore. After dinner, we drove up to the State Capitol building and took pictures while standing on the Capitol steps. A band of roving teens only a couple of years younger than ourselves yelled obscenities from their car as we came back down to the street, but they wanted nothing more. For the second time in the same day, we had seen something which didn't quite fit with our previous perceptions of Utah.

•••••

The next day, we took a tour of the Mormon Tabernacle and grounds. This was a memorable experience. We saw a statue dedicated to birds who had saved the farmers from a locust invasion. Of course, not being members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, we could not enter the Mormon Temple itself, but nevertheless, the tour proved quite interesting. And besides, we needed a bit of cultural enlightenment before our next foray into the wilderness.

Bright and early the next morning, we packed up and headed north to Ogden. Sitting in yet another Sambo's, we planned in detail the next leg of the trip. We knew we wanted to head to the Grand Tetons, but the details were still a little sketchy. We decided to drive north into Idaho, then approach Jackson, Wyoming, from the west.

The drive from Ogden to Jackson was fairly uneventful until we approached the Wyoming border. Here, elevations increased dramatically, and again, we were treated to a palette of color similar to what we had seen in New Mexico. On the other "side" of the mountains, we descended into Jackson. At that time, Jackson Hole was not quite as developed as it is today, and consequently, about all we could find to eat was pizza, ice cream, and fried chicken. We settled for pizza and marveled at the size of a taxidermied elk which had been mounted on a wooden platform outside the restaurant.

Grand Teton National Park, as we were to discover, is probably one of the best places in the United States for day hiking. The trails, although somewhat challenging, are well marked and clearly spotted. We wasted no time taking advantage of this, beginning our hikes almost immediately upon arrival. And this time, unlike our evening at the Holbrook KOA, we had been able to set up the tent without any problems or disturbances to our fellow campers.

We had planned to stay only one evening at Grand Teton and then move on to Yellowstone, but after a night of camping at Yellowstone in high winds with grizzly bear alerts, we returned to the relative safety of our Teton campground. We took day hikes in Yellowstone, even hiking in areas which were considered off limits due to a recent avalanche. But we were careful and enjoyed everything both parks had to offer. We took some magnificent pictures, probably the finest shots taken during the entire trip.

After several days in the area, we decided to head on to our next destination, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We headed straight south out of Jackson to the town of Evanston, Wyoming, then east to Cheyenne. We stopped briefly in Laramie to see the University of Wyoming, where my friend Lewis had attended college for a year. Pulling into Cheyenne around dinnertime, we headed into a McDonald's for dinner. I remember that I was sporting an old hat which my father had worn in the 1950's. In the hatband was a Moshe Dayan button and a big rhinestone pin. Folks in the McD's probably thought we were possessed Eastern folk.

We reached the Colorado border sometime after dark and heard for the first time the song "Green Grass and High Tides" by the Outlaws as we drove into Fort Collins. Finally pulling into Denver, we booked ourselves into a TraveLodge, arguably the nicest place we had yet stayed. As Peter once again talked in his sleep, Paul and I sat up watching an ABC-TV production of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It was better than the average show in those days and was humorously punctuated at intervals by Peter sitting up in his sleep and saying something totally out of context.

After a restful evening, and in spite of Peter's random exhortations, we awoke the next morning and headed into town, stopping at a sporting goods store alongside the railroad tracks. By this time, we were a bit too outdoor oriented to truly appreciate Denver, so we headed on to the park. Rocky Mountain, like Grand Teton and Yellowstone, gave us the opportunity to do some great day hikes. Here, elevations were even higher than in Wyoming. One day, we hiked up Flat Top Mountain, which topped out over 12,400 feet. At that elevation, I noted that my "Photogray" glasses (the ancestors of today's "Transition" lenses) had not only turned gray but had darkened further, to a deep cobalt blue. We threw snowballs at each other from atop a glacier in August.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a gust of wind took hold of Peter's beloved Army cap, which he had worn all day, every day, and lifted it on the breeze to an unknown location at a much lower altitude. It was gone. The icon of the trip -- it had been stolen by Mother Nature. Perhaps it was time to move on.

to be continued...

6/10/15

The Pinto Chronicles - Part One

In these days of discounted air fares, most people take the high road and get from one place to another as quickly as possible. But just a few years ago, when a transcontinental airline ticket was a semi-major investment, it wasn't that way. This is the story of how three young men traveled together from Memphis to California and back in a Ford Pinto and lived to tell about it.

The idea began one late spring evening in Memphis. My friend Paul, whom I had known since ninth grade, and I were sitting around talking when the idea struck us -- why not make a cross-country pilgrimage to L.A. and San Francisco? The more we talked, the better the idea sounded. After all, we were college kids with holdover summer jobs in town; we could probably do this. We decided not only to make the plan a reality, but to include Paul's younger brother Peter, who was 17 at the time. I was born in California and had visited several times in my youth, but for Paul and Peter, this would be their first West Coast pilgrimage. It would later come to be known the Great California Trip of 1975.

No good trip happens without a little preparation, and this was no exception. Entrenching ourselves firmly at the Ranch House on North Highland Street in Memphis, with roast beef sandwiches, fries, and ice cold beer, Paul and I set about planning at around 9:00 one evening. Within an hour or so, we had a basic itinerary. We would drive west on a Sunday afternoon, hoping to make Oklahoma City by evening. It could be done. It was going to happen.

There were several weeks of planning involved, in which we procured an old Boy Scout tent which belonged to Paul and Peter's church, visited an auto parts store to pick up belts and hoses, bought sunglasses, and discussed the plan in further detail. We set up the tent in my family's back yard just to make sure that a) we could do it, and b) there were no holes through which we might receive an unwanted washing or creatures of the desert. Having found no problems, we waited with anticipation for the date to arrive.

Finally, on a Sunday morning in early August, we headed out from Paul's house. We had mounted a sign in the back window that said, "California or Bust!" Peter donned his favorite Army cap, I put on some reflective sunglasses, and Paul took the driver's seat. Paul and Peter's family and my mom and dad all waved goodbye to us as we headed out of the driveway and into the unknown. It was gonna be great, and by the time it was done, it was gonna be over 5,000 miles.

•••••

The first day's drive was about what we expected. The route from Memphis west through Arkansas was a long, solid Interstate 40 haul with few interruptions along the way. Somewhere around Fort Smith, the bottom fell out, but the downpour didn't last long, and soon we were across the Oklahoma state line. At around 10:00 PM, we pulled into a Day's Inn in Oklahoma City -- $17 a night and very comfortable.

The next morning, we stopped at a convenience store to pick up the necessary provisions (more about this later) and got back underway. The plan was to spend the night at a campground close to Bluewater Lake State Park, New Mexico, fairly close to the New Mexico-Arizona state border. Little did we know what awaited us there.

That morning's drive through western Oklahoma and into the panhandle of Texas gave us our first glimpse of the west in all its dusty glory.  The last time I had made this drive, I was only four years old, but surprisingly, I had some recollection of the old Route 66, which our home road of I-40 paralleled (and in some cases, replaced). For Paul and Peter, it was an initiation.  

I suggested that since we were in Texas, it would be nice to stop for some "good Texas beef". Now, if you're from Texas, please don't take offense at what I am about to say, because it is not representative of the state in general. I've had many great times in Texas and have known some wonderful Texans. We just picked the wrong place on the wrong day.

We pulled off the road and into an Amarillo restaurant which had been widely advertised on billboards ever since we crossed the Oklahoma-Texas state line as promising great beef. We stepped out of the Pinto and into what was essentially a businessman's restaurant. Now, it being 1975 and all, we didn't exactly have that clean-cut look, and the regulars took notice. It seemed that everyone else in the place was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt with tie. Steer head belt buckles were in abundance. We, on the other hand, were three somewhat shaggy youth in a little car with Tennessee license plates.

Nevertheless, we were waited upon and presented with plates of "good Texas beef", or so we thought. The problem with the beef was that you needed much stronger teeth and jaws than any of us had. I assumed the beef came from longhorn cattle, not known for tender cuts. But regardless, it was food, and we gnawed down what we could, glad to have provisions and air conditioning. Back on the road.

It was hard to miss the Cadillac Ranch. Located just off I-40 were ten cars, dated 1949 to 1963, placed nose first into the sand, parallel to each other in single file. Erected in 1974 by a helium millionaire, this modern monument has since been moved to a site two miles west of its historical location to avoid displacement by the spreading development of Amarillo.

New Mexico presented us with an artist's palette of color almost from the moment we entered the state. I hadn't remembered this part of the route -- unusual rock formations along the way revealed splendid earth tones, and the clear light seemed to highlight every grain of sand along the side of the road. We breezed across the state, noting the bicycle riders in the Albuquerque heat with respect, since Paul and I both did a considerable amount of biking back in Memphis, but not in these temperatures. Before too long, we arrived at the Bluewater State Park campground, where we had reservations for a tent site for the evening. Paul pulled off the road and into the park entrance.

The Pinto was a tough little vehicle, but the road into Bluewater was daunting. We bounced along a rutted, dusty lane toward what appeared to be an open tomb of weathered RV's and tents. There was a sense of drama in the air. And then -- BANG! -- down came the Pinto on a protrusion of hardened earth. Paul thought for a minute that we might have punctured the oil pan, but everything appeared to be OK, at least for the moment.

Peter had been experiencing gastric difficulty for quite a few miles, so we pulled off the dirt road, well away from any other campers. Poor Peter excused himself from the car to head into the bushes, since there were no facilities in sight. Paul and I waited for a few moments, and then we heard a frantic rustle. Peter came running toward the car yelling, "Let's get outta here!"

Once he was in the car, he launched into a highly animated account of what had happened. Apparently, as soon as he had positioned himself sans trousers, he found himself looking up at a rattlesnake coiled on a rock directly in front of him. Time was of the essence, and Peter felt that a hasty retreat would be well advised.  Besides, we'd find another place down the road, wouldn't we?

Spooked by Bluewater, we headed farther down the road and arrived in Gallup, New Mexico, at about sunset. Within minutes we located a McDonald's (we seemed to be developing a knack for this). Rushing in, we placed our usual orders, which came on egg buns instead of the classic white buns we were used to in Tennessee. But no matter, because the food tasted great, and there were no reptiles in sight. After dinner, we drove on through the rest of Gallup, where we noticed groups of heavily inebriated Native American men standing on the street corners -- big, strong guys with seemingly nothing to do and no place to go. It was eerie and sad at the same time.

As night fell, we headed on, since by then we had no accommodation plans.  We passed Petrified Forest National Park but could see nothing, since we were totally enveloped in darkness. Along the way, we began to see ominous road construction warning signs reading "DANGER AHEAD". The first sign was not disturbing, but as we proceeded, the signs became larger and more threatening. We began to be a bit nervous about what might lie ahead.

After a few minutes, we reached the dreaded site. Arizona road construction crews had been hard at work patching a small slice of the pavement in the right lane, an area no more than a few feet long by a foot or two wide. In retrospect, we thanked the state for taking the time and effort to provide warnings. We had thought that the road was about to drop off into space.

Soon, we reached Holbrook, Arizona. This looked like a good place to crash, and fortunately, there was a KOA campground within sight. We had found a home for the night, so we pulled into the campground and positioned ourselves on one of the outside lanes. Even though it was 10:15 PM, we still had to set up camp. Paul and I, being 20 and drained from the day's 880-mile drive, popped out a couple of tall Coors beers which we had purchased earlier in the day. We handed Peter a soft drink and began to pitch the tent.

In a word, we had not adequately prepared for the tent setup. As we clattered among the various poles, trying to make sense of it all, the New York couple across from us emerged from their RV and set up lawn chairs just to watch us. It must have been entertaining -- three guys from Tennessee, two of whom seemed somewhat tipsy, who without some divine intervention would soon be sleeping under the stars for want of structural knowledge.

Peter was by now road weary, and seeing the KOA swimming pool, became excited at the thought of a refreshing swim. But upon further investigation, we realized that the surface of the water was quite dirty. It looked as if many previous campers had not dusted themselves off prior to taking the plunge. The pool was perhaps not a good idea for us.

Eventually, with the tent up and reasonably stable, we settled in for the night. All was well until some time later when Peter sat up and stated, "I can't park the tent. I can't park the tent!" He appeared to be frantic, but he also appeared to be talking in his sleep. Paul then assured me that this was normal, and that we might be further entertained by Peter throughout the trip. This would come to pass.

•••••

Morning dawned, and we were ready to hit the road again. We hoped to make L.A. by evening. As I rolled back the tent door, I was startled to find that I was looking out onto a vast desert. Apparently, the KOA had been plopped down in the middle of, literally, nowhere. No wonder we had heard coyotes calling during the night! We packed up the Pinto and headed out, stopping for breakfast at Winslow, Arizona (the same town mentioned by the Eagles in "Take It Easy").

After a decent breakfast at what appeared to be a locally popular restaurant, we picked up some post cards to send back home (this was before email), but we were saddened to find that the proprietor of the neighboring Motel 6 would not let us use his pen to write the cards. He was adamant about it. Apparently, pen theft was a serious crime in this part of the country.

In Arizona, there were many makeshift billboards along the side of the interstate advertising Indian jewelry. In 1975, turquoise jewelry was quite popular, and the locals were keenly aware of market demand. But we truly had to stop and laugh for a moment when we saw one eager effort which read simply "Indian Jewry." If only my friends in Chicago could see this, I thought.

No trip to Arizona is complete without a visit to the Grand Canyon. Stopping for a rest at Flagstaff, we prepared ourselves for the hike up Highway 89 to the "big hole in the ground". As we headed up 89, we came across numerous Native American women selling jewelry by the side of the road. Perhaps this was what the signs had been referring to. Spreads of beautiful beaded necklaces graced sheets which had been laid out on the sand, while makeshift sheet canopies protected the merchants from the noon desert heat.

The Grand Canyon itself was a spectacular sight, and to add to the ambiance, we pulled out cans of Vienna sausages and packages of crackers. As we feasted, we looked out over the magnificent vistas before us, but after an hour or so, we decided it was time to head down the road. Returning down to I-40, we resumed what by now had become a trek through the desert. We refueled at a Whiting Brothers gas station where a thermometer read 114 degrees in the shade, and we noticed that all the men standing outside the station had dark brown, leathery skin.

We stopped at Needles, California, for dinner. Needles is one of the hottest cities in the United States. If you'll watch the weather reports on TV, you'll see that Needles quite often takes the prize for highest daily temperature, and they are not joking. Dinner was at Sambo's, a restaurant which has since disappeared from the American dining scene. As we sat in the comfortable surroundings of the restaurant, bathed in extreme air conditioning, we pondered what lay ahead of us, for we still had to get across California by the end of the evening.

•••••

Driving west out of Needles took us across the Mojave Desert, certainly one of nature's most mysterious places. Occasionally, we would spot a house nestled back away from the road against the sand hills. But we never saw any people. At about 9:00 PM, we pulled into Barstow for gas, and I took over driving from Paul.

All was going well until about 45 minutes later. Now, recall that I was driving my friend's Pinto with a stick shift, and that, being at Northwestern in Chicago for nine months each year without an automobile, I did not drive on a regular basis, plus all our family's cars were automatic.  You get the picture.

While descending a steep, curvy downhill grade on I-15 toward San Bernardino, I suddenly noticed a pair of headlights closing in on me. I could not pull into the left lane, because other drivers were already occupying every available slot. When I next looked in the mirror, I could see the name "Mack" on the truck's radiator, as well as every fly and mosquito which he had picked up between Needles and Barstow. The driver was barreling down on me at around 80 miles per hour (the speed limit in those days was 55, and 80 was very fast to be driving at the time).

I was truly without an escape path, since it was pitch black and we were in the process of careening, albeit in an orderly fashion, down the grade. My palms started to sweat. And then, as suddenly as it began, the truck slowed down and fell back. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that he had been pulled over by a California State Trooper. I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was not long before I handed the wheel back over to Paul, and he took us in. A large dark blue sign spanned what was by now the "freeway" -- it read simply "Los Angeles", and displayed a city seal on each side. As we hauled on down I-10, we saw our exit sign up ahead. We were staying with Paul and Peter's aunt, uncle, and cousins in Alhambra, an L.A. suburb just a bit south of Pasadena. We located their house without much trouble and headed up to the door, tired but no worse for the wear. The family greeted us with open arms. We had arrived.

to be continued...

1/27/15

The Key to the City


My friend Sonya has a favorite expression which I'm fond of using. She always prefaces tales of her myriad adventures by saying, "So there I was, sittin' at home, mindin' my own business."

View of Downtown Atlanta from Buckhead
Maybe I wasn't exactly sitting at home that day in September, 1981, but when Al Bartine called me into his downtown Chicago office to tell me that our operations were being relocated to Atlanta, I really had been minding my own business and didn't quite know what to say. Having spent considerable time working at and supporting our Atlanta regional office, I had made friends there, and yet, I had never considered going so far as to move there, since I thought (silly me) that moving was always at one's own discretion and on one's own timeline. You found a place you liked, and you figured out how to get there. Even though I had grown up in the South, in Memphis, the place I'd always envisioned living was somewhere within a fifty mile radius of Los Angeles. That day in Chicago changed everything.

When I had first visited Atlanta on business with my boss, I had observed several things:
  • The city, although geographically located in the American South, seemed to have strong Northern overtones. Many people sounded like Midwesterners or Northeasterners, yet it was quite easy to find good barbecue.
  • People drove fast. I was used to commuting on Chicago city expressways and downtown city streets every day of the week, but driving in Atlanta was a horse of a different color, and I was more than a little scared.
  • There was no perceivable order to the layout of the streets, and combined with the aggressive driving, this made for some challenging navigation.
  • Even though there was a sense of gentle, relaxed Southern hospitality, Atlanta was possessed of an equal sense of assertive self-confidence.
  • I kinda liked the place.

My wife Karen and I took stock of our situation in Chicago, and given the attractive move package and career options, we relocated to the city over Memorial Day weekend of 1982. Owing to the remarkably high temperatures that first Saturday, we had to run to a department store to buy shorts, which we had not owned in Chicago. On the way into the Richway store in suburban Roswell, we walked behind two men in overalls chewing on sticks of hay, something we probably wouldn't have seen in the North Shore Chicago neighborhood which we'd left only days before. I raised an eyebrow, because to me, this didn't look quite like the urban South that I remembered from my youth.

It was probably about three or four years later that my schedule of commuting, working long days, business travel, and studying for my master's program began to catch up with me. I found myself lamenting that I was living in what appeared to be endless suburbia. Granted, it was a very nice, well-planned flavor of suburbia, and I hadn't seen anyone else eating hay out in the open, but nevertheless, I was longing for the elements that defined Atlanta, the city whose motto was simply "Resurgens" (Latin for "rising again"), coined after it began its rebirth from the ashes of the Civil War. After all, this was the place I'd heard called "The New York of the South." There had to be something that I was missing.

Atlanta in 1871
Growing up in Memphis, my work, education, and recreation were mostly confined to the city limits, so when I moved to Atlanta, I was expecting to find a bustling city core. But in the early 1980's, the Atlanta scene was all about outward growth. The city had no natural boundaries, and suburbs were being built at an astonishing rate, unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Indeed, real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution proclaimed in those days: "It is altogether probable that in terms of land area, Atlanta is the fastest-growing human settlement in history." It was hard to keep up with it all.

I had almost given up finding the true Atlanta when something fortuitous happened. Early one sunny Saturday afternoon, as I was lamenting yet again about the endless sprawl, Karen told me that she'd had enough of my fussing. She ordered me to get in the car and said she was going to drive us somewhere. I asked where, but she refused to tell me. She seemed dead serious, and I deemed it an unwise time to argue the point. We headed off down the highway toward what I thought was the city.

Downtown Avondale Estates
About thirty minutes later, we drove into Avondale Estates, an "in town" neighborhood a few miles east of downtown Atlanta, where my wife's friend Ginna Evans had grown up and still lived. Ginna and Karen had talked at length about Avondale, and Karen had passed some of that along to me, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by what I saw that day: beautiful vintage homes of all sizes on pristine lots, people out walking, massive trees spanning the streets, and a charming downtown defined by Tudor-Revival style architecture. There was a peacefulness to Avondale which was the perfect panacea to all my lingering post-relocation anxiety, and for some reason, I felt immediately at home, even though I'd never visited there before. We drove up and down the streets of Avondale, then headed to the bustling DeKalb Farmers Market, with walls of Asian spices, rows upon rows of freshly picked produce, and a massive fish market. We bought some oversized, delicious cookies and ate them in the car, and I realized at that very moment that I had just experienced one of those pivotal moments in my life: I had stumbled upon something which looked very much like the essence of the true Atlanta.

In the ensuing years, Ginna and her family adopted us. We spent countless hours in Avondale, attending family events of all sorts, and I especially enjoyed hearing the stories Ginna's parents and friends told about what Avondale and Atlanta had been like when they had moved there so many years before. Over time, I began to realize that these were the same sorts of stories I would have been hearing had I been back home in Memphis; indeed, this was very much like that home, just a few hundred miles east. Going to Avondale made me feel good, like I had grown up there and belonged there. Even though I didn't live in Avondale itself, its sense of community was what began to tie me tightly to Atlanta.

For a few weeks in 1995, I actually became an honorary citizen of Avondale. We had moved from Atlanta to Charlotte in 1993 as part of a corporate relocation, but two years later, after our company was bought out, we opted to return to the familiarity of the city. I took a job in Atlanta while my wife and children stayed back in Charlotte until our house could be sold. I commuted back and forth every week, but having no convenient place to hang my hat during the week in Atlanta, I was delighted (and relieved) when Ginna's family offered me their upstairs room. We had fine dinners (Ginna's family at one time owned a chain of Atlanta restaurants), did the dishes, mowed the lawn, and in the evenings, watched the Braves on the living room TV or cruised around looking for houses. Those were some splendid days, and I am forever grateful to the Evans family for helping me make it through that period of transition.

View of Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park
Eventually, I became an Atlantan. It's been 33 years this Memorial Day that I've lived here, except for those two years away in Charlotte. Even though I live in the northern suburbs, I've learned the ins and outs of the city. I've wandered endlessly from one part of town to the next, and in the process, I've grown to love the place. I've made wonderful friends here, many of whom share the common thread of growing up in a Southern city in the 60's and 70's. I reflect on those good times, but I also look forward to the next wave, because the city is growing yet again, this time from the inside out, with a myriad of in town neighborhoods rebuilding and expanding to meet one another. Few things make me happier than sitting outside on a patio as the sun goes down, observing the diverse patchwork of humanity and style that defines Atlanta and watching the glow of the lights as the city's heart beats on steadily into the night.

Meanwhile, quiet little Avondale Estates, having played second fiddle in recent years to the burgeoning neighboring city of Decatur, is experiencing a renaissance of its own these days, and I can't wait to see what's on the horizon. But every time I drive to it or through it, I will always remember that afternoon in 1986 when I really and truly found a home that perhaps had been waiting there for me all along.

1/14/15

Baptist

In eight seconds, it was gone.

Baptist Memorial Hospital, once the flagship of the thriving Memphis medical center, was leveled by controlled implosion on Sunday, November 6, 2005. The 21-story building, erected in 1955, was once the largest private hospital in the United States. It was demolished to make way for the University of Tennessee-Baptist Research Park, a facility devoted to bioscience research. I had visited Memphis earlier in 2005 but had not been aware of the forthcoming demolition, so when I returned the following spring, seeing an enormous pile of earth and rubble where the hospital had once stood was quite shocking.

Baptist ran deep in my family. During my childhood, my mother was hospitalized several times, sometimes for a week or two at a stretch, and my dad would take me down when he went to visit her in the evenings after work. The hospital was located in the midtown medical center, about a 20 minute drive from our house. We became so familiar with Baptist that we knew every nook and cranny of the place. We knew which dishes to order at the spacious wood-paneled restaurant on the main floor, the location of all the phone booths, and which gift shops featured which magazines. 

One of my favorite stories revolves around a humorous incident that occurred one night in the lounge area on one of the upper floors. My dad and I had gone down to get some coffee and Coke out of one of the machines, and two highly inebriated gentlemen were sitting in the room by a dollar bill changer. One of them pointed to the machine and said, "You know, that thing right thar' is dumb. I put a five dollar bill in thar' yesterday, and it gimme change for a one!" My dad and I looked at each other and smiled. You couldn't make up some of the stuff we would see and hear at the hospital.

Baptist had its share of famous patients -- it sheltered Elvis when he was visiting Memphis and required hospitalization. My mom worked at a doctor's office adjacent to the hospital in the early 70's, and she said that you could always tell when Elvis was there, because the corner room on the 19th floor (the neurology and neurosurgery ward, always kept very quiet) would have aluminum foil taped to the windows. It seemed that the bright light was too much for him. I recall many occasions passing by the hospital on Union Avenue and seeing a mirror-like reflection from the windows of that corner room.

Over the years, my mom received excellent medical care at Baptist, and by the time I reached my teens, I had become very accustomed to being at the hospital. Once I learned to drive, I would go down for visits myself or sometimes take a friend along. Many of them knew my mom and thought of her as family, so I don't think she ever minded having extra visitors. I began to become quite familiar with the names of the medical staff, who I would hear paged constantly: "Paging Doctor Callison, Doctor Maston Callison...Doctor Boyd, Doctor Allen Boyd." In those days, cell phones were non-existent, and pagers were new inventions, so phone calls were the norm. Eventually, the daily comings and goings of the staff and the general cadence of the place began to feel like part of my life. 

There were difficult moments, such as the night when my dad couldn't make it because of work, and I arrived just before the end of visiting hours. I padded into my mom's room and watched her sleeping there, so frail. I remember hoping beyond hope that she would survive the night, which she did, greeting me with a smile when I visited the next day. The nurses always said that she was a great patient.

In January of my senior year in high school, my father suffered a heart attack while working one Sunday morning at his grocery store. We rushed to the hospital and met him in intensive care. True to form, he was in good spirits, joking with the staff at every opportunity. I remember sitting in the ICU waiting room with large groups of family members, some of whom had brought lunch or dinner while they waited for news of their loved ones. So many stories, I thought, so many people in need of a miracle. We had been lucky with Dad, and he went home within a week or so.

In the fall, I headed off to Chicago to attend Northwestern. After all the time I'd spent in the hospital, I started thinking that a medical career might be my calling, and at the persistent urging of our family physician, who had been dean of the UT Medical School for a time, I enrolled in the pre-med program. For four years, I studied biology, chemistry, physiology and psychology, along with a generous dose of liberal arts, eventually concentrating on neuroscience. But at the end of my undergraduate days, seeing myself in quite a different place and frame of mind from four years earlier, I chose not to apply to medical school.

Almost one year later, in June of 1978, Dad suffered another heart attack, and this time, his condition required open heart surgery. The procedure was still relatively new in those days, but he pulled through. After several long days in coronary care, then intensive care, he was transferred to a regular room and appeared to be stable. I headed back to Chicago, where I had recently moved, but a couple of days later, we lost Dad. I never got back to Baptist after that.

I suppose it's a bit strange to think of an institution like a hospital as a second home, but in a way, that's what it was for me during the 60's and 70's. I ate there, did my homework there, even slept there on several occasions. The devoted staff worked night and day to care for their patients, and rarely did I hear a complaint from anyone. More often than not, they would greet us with smiles and gentle spirits when they came into the room. Baptist brought my parents through some rough times, and being there gave me a different perspective on life and what a gift it was.

In the end, I don't think I could have witnessed the Baptist demolition -- it was enough watching it on YouTube, and I'd rather remember it the way it looked in the old days. The bricks and mortar of Baptist may be gone now, but they'll forever occupy a place in my memory and in my heart.

1/4/15

"Lunche-r-r-r-r-o!"

"Lunche-r-r-r-r-o!" The announcement would come over the tinny loudspeaker in our South Central Los Angeles office at precisely 9:30 every weekday morning, when the food truck made its first appearance of the day. It was good to know that people were thinking ahead.

Of the many pleasures in life, my perennial favorite is lunch. I really have a thing for it. I guess many people do, but I'm a morning person, so by the time lunch rolls around, I'm ready to rock and roll, whether it's a weekday or the weekend. It's more than just food to me -- it's a chance to get out and immerse myself in the rest of the world, and I find that if I don't take that break, I'm generally frustrated by day's end, a little out of sorts and feeling that I've missed something. I realized some time ago that the roots of my lunch obsession run pretty deep and that they can be traced back to my early days of weekend work at my dad's grocery store.

Ladies lunching at National Cash Register, Dayton, OH, 1902
My father managed a store on Lamar Avenue in the city of Memphis, and it was patronized by a broad cross-section of the citizenry. Most of my dad's friends were salespeople or food brokers, and they usually arrived a little before lunchtime. After doing a bit of business, they typically would offer to take my dad, and sometimes me, out to lunch at any of a number of local favorite spots. One-of-a-kind cafes and restaurants were abundant in those days, and many places offered plate lunches consisting of homemade specialties and scrumptious desserts. People in sales seemed to know both the new places and the classic establishments, and in their company, we sampled everything. I always looked forward to these forays, and the sales people were usually lively conversationalists who didn't exclude me from the proceedings; indeed, they often kept two threads running: one for the shop talk with my dad, and the other asking me about school and outside activities. I liked the idea of being around adults and eating good food while being made to feel a part of it all.

When I began working in the late 1970's, people still did serious lunches. It was not out of the ordinary to find myself sitting at a hotel restaurant, sipping a before-lunch alcoholic beverage (scotch and water with a twist was my favorite), at the mercy of whichever manager had decided to take us out. Back in those days, talk about work issues rarely made it to the lunch table, and instead, we traded stories about movies, concerts, family, politics and home repair, in no particular order.

One of my favorite memories from that time was dining at the Golden Gate Restaurant, a family owned business on West Randolph Street in Chicago. Our company's CEO, a kindly elderly gentleman whom we referred to as "A.M.", would invite three of four of us to accompany him almost every week to the Golden Gate, and once seated, we would be presented with a generous basket of bread and butter, into which we would all dig with abandon. The food was predictable and good, and the prices were very reasonable. Going to the Golden Gate with the "big boss" really made me feel part of the working world.

The Beef-Eatery, on the other hand, was our quick go-to greasy spoon. This tiny establishment, just around the corner from our office, featured a selection of burgers and sandwiches, all prepared in a dark, low-ceilinged kitchen. Once the staff had prepared your order and placed it into a brown paper bag, you either took the bag with you back to your office or headed up a rickety flight of stairs to a "dining area" which could only be described as spartan. If you chose the takeout option, the bag would usually be spotted liberally with grease by the time you got back around the block.

We had many other favorites in Chicago: Burger Baron, The Off-Center Cafe (A.M.'s quote about Off-Center was, "I could make better chicken salad at home"), some Irish pub whose name I do not recall...the list goes on and on. I never tired of heading out for lunch, regardless of the schedule or the amount of snow on the ground at the time. Sometimes, we would head to my boss Al's brother's cafe on the West Side, where we would be greeted with something like "Yo, Al...you brought all da guys!", then treated to a hearty hot plate lunch. Of course, there was always Diana's, which had absolutely no signage on the building but was a favorite of the Chicago cops, who would park in a somewhat hidden lot around the corner from the entrance. We always felt safe there.

When I started traveling to Los Angeles for work, I carried on the tradition I had started with my dad and made friends with the company salesmen, who would always take me to their favorite Mexican restaurants. We usually ended up at any number of places in the community of South Gate, just a little east of the Harbor Freeway. The guys knew when my morning flight was arriving, and by the time I had driven from LAX to the office, I had just enough time to put my briefcase down before they were ready to head out to lunch.

When I moved to Atlanta in the early 1980's, I reacquainted myself with Southern delicacies such as barbecue and Brunswick stew. At the time, Atlanta had a local Mexican chain called El Toro, and I wish I had a dollar for every "Speedy Gonzalez" lunch I had at one of their many locations -- I would have retired ten years ago.

For two brief periods in the 1980's, I broke tradition and became religious about bringing my lunch. The first time was when we were saving up a down payment for the house we planned to buy when we moved to Atlanta. The second time was solely for the purpose of saving money. Both periods were successful but marked a real departure from the typical midday break.

Back when CD players had just been invented (yes, I'm dating myself), many lunch excursions culminated with a trip to one of our local Atlanta stereo stores, where we would listen to the various players and push the eject buttons, just to watch the CD drawers slide in and out. A few of us had made the leap from vinyl to CD's, but for most of us, this was window shopping. In those days, stereo stores were staffed by people who could seamlessly launch into a discussion of frequency response, wow and flutter, or the merits of Dolby C over Dolby B. Sadly, those days appear to have vanished into the ether of flawless digital reproduction.

One of my favorite lunch traditions became known simply as "Tsu's". One day back in the late 1980's, a small group of my friends headed to a north side cafe called North Peking and sampled the General Tsu's dish which, of course, goes by about twenty names: General Tsu's, General Tso's, General Chow, etc. The original group reported back to the office that they had discovered something quite grand, so the next week, a larger group headed out to North Peking. This tradition continued every Monday for four years, with the crowd gradually increasing in size to over a dozen participants. Only when several of us moved away or to other jobs did the tradition finally come to an end. I still drive by the place and have a hankering to go in.

Nowadays, we try a little bit of everything: new places, old standbys, "meat and three" cafeterias, sandwich shops, pizza joints, cheap Chinese, and occasionally, the high spice of Indian or Thai. We tend to look for value, and Atlanta is pretty good in that respect. I've never really gotten into the "power lunch" thing, because a) it's too expensive, and b) it requires too much focus and concentrated thought. I'd rather just go out and be surprised by whatever happens on that particular day. And besides, lunch is our chance to reconnect, catch up, trade stories, and resolve crises. It is a sacrosanct time, and my friends and I tend to become rather annoyed when others do not respect the noon hour. So many fascinating things have occurred during lunches: emergency whiskey acquisitions, random power outages, even insects falling from the ceiling onto us. The list goes on and on.

In this new year, I'm thinking that I may want to economize a bit more, because after all, there may come a time when I want to do something drastic, like being able to retire. I consider it now and then, and I guess retirement would be okay, as long as I could maintain some semblance of my lunch habits. Without lunch...well, I don't even want to think about that.

Until later, bon app├ętit, my friends. Maybe I'll see you at the next table.