My Father’s Music

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I never heard my father talk about how he came to love classical music. It seemed a strange thing for a young man from a small town in southeast Arkansas to gravitate to. But gravitate he did, and it was one of the qualities that defined him for his whole life. When he died in 2012 he left behind what may be one of the most impressive collections of classical music ever assembled by an individual in the state. There were boxes of 78 RPM records left to him from the estate of a man he barely knew. There were cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes. There were VHS tapes of operas and symphony performances recorded from the PBS channel. But mostly there were CD’s. Hundreds of CD’s. Possibly more than a thousand. He kept it all in a hall closet in his house in Conway, neatly arranged in an assortment of boxes, many of them cataloged alphabetically.

When I was growing up my father kept his stereo system in a cherry wood cabinet in our living room. For years it was the nicest piece of furniture in the house. The cabinet held an assortment of receivers, turntables and tape decks. On Sunday afternoons, when other dads were doing yard work or playing golf, mine would sit on the sofa and listen to his classical records at a volume that somehow became unacceptable when I cranked up the Beatles to the same decibel level on my portable RCA. This was the time my father took for himself every week and we learned it was wise to tread softly.

The symphonies and operas I unconsciously absorbed on those Sunday afternoons stuck in my memory and fifty-five years later they’re still there. But despite the exposure I never developed an appreciation, and the same is true for my three brothers, so when my mother sold her house last August and we had to decide what to do with my father’s collection it was not as simple as dividing it four ways, because nobody really wanted it. A lifetime of work unappreciated by his progeny. How sad is that. There was even talk that it might end up in the landfill.

As it turned out, the decision on what to do with the 78’s took care of itself when we discovered that two decades spent in an uncooled storage building had warped most of the records in their sleeves. They now reside at the Conway city dump. It’s just as well because they apparently had no value anyway. Before he died my father had offered to donate the old records to the two universities in Conway, but neither of them had any interest.

My son-in-law took the reel-to-reel tapes and I was glad about that. The VHS recordings went into the trash because no one has a working VCR any more. A handful of cassette tapes went with them, for more or less the same reason. And that left the CD’s, all of which are now stored on a shelf in my basement, all 247 lbs. of them.

In 2009, on the anniversary of my 25th year of service to my benevolent employer, I received a catalog from which I could choose a gift to commemorate the happy occasion. Had they been available at the time I would have chosen a drone, but since they weren’t I picked a DVD player. I’m not sure why because already owned two of them. Maybe I expected that one would break. That never happened, and in the mean time Netflix made DVD players practically irrelevant anyway, so the new player languished in its box, unopened.

It remained in that box for nine years, until last week, when I tore off the gold wrapping paper and, on the workbench in my basement, I connected the player to a receiver and two speakers I had not used in almost as many years. My goal, to be achieved sometime before I leave this world, is to listen to every one of those CD’s at least once. I will play them as I putter around in the basement in retirement, which will begin in three months. I will play them loud enough to be heard over the roar of furnace flames in winter and the air-conditioning fan in the summer. Over the tromping feet on the floor above. Possibly over the high-pitched whine of woodworking tools. That’s a decision still to be made. Definitely over the whirring belt of our under-utilized treadmill.

I know the music on those CD’s will never mean as much to me as it did to my father, but that’s not the point. The point is just to do it, as a way of honoring a man that I miss every day. I think he would appreciate the gesture. And who knows, now that I’m older I might come to see classical music in a new light. But I know it won’t be “Sunday afternoon on the sofa in the living room” light. That level of absolute appreciation can only live in the heart of a true aficionado. Like my dad.

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A Hard Rain Gonna Fall.

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This picture was taken on a residential street in Orange, TX. a few days ago. It is typical of every street in this particular neighborhood, and dozens of other neighborhoods all across Houston and southeast Texas, after 51 inches of rain fell on them over three days.

I showed the picture to a gentleman from England who occupied the stool next to me at the Hoot County Saloon near the Houston Intercontinental Airport. He asked if the flood did that and I said yes, indirectly. It was actually the homeowners that made the piles that lined the streets, carried piece by piece out of houses and stacked wide and high, so the city can send trucks to haul it all away. There are piles of molding carpet and crumbled sheetrock and planks from wood floors, cabinets and vanities and appliances and mattresses, furniture and tools and sports equipment and children’s toys. I explained how the insides of these houses had been gutted. Walls have been cut just above the level reached by the flood water, in this neighborhood about two feet up. In others it is much higher. Wiring is exposed, underfoot remains only a concrete slab. The gentleman from England said he expected people would be living upstairs for a quite long while. The flaw in his thinking is these are one story houses.

The owner of the house I visited is a coworker in the insurance industry. He gave us a tour of his house, we gave him an envelope with eleven hundred dollars in it, some of it given by people he doesn’t even know. My coworker had flood insurance. He pointed to neighbors on each side of him and across the street who don’t. I heard it said that maybe 20% of the people who had flooded homes in Texas had flood insurance. I wondered how the rest will manage.

To me the task of just getting back to a place where you could have a bed to sleep in and a table to eat at and a chair to watch TV from is so daunting it is almost overwhelming. I don’t know how they will do it, and I worry that some will collapse under the stress of it all in a few weeks, after the volunteers leave and the feelings of goodwill, which are very real right now, have dissipated. I wish you all the best and I hope you get the help you need.

And now it’s off to Florida.

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Drivin’ Old Dixie Down

AR Pine Bluff High School Confederat Monument

It’s funny how once a thing gets started it can take on a momentum that nothing can stop. Four months ago no one gave a rat’s ass about Confederate statues, and now it’s all we can talk about. Cities are removing them, vandals are defacing them, mobs are destroying them and people with varying agendas gather to protect them. It’s all very strange.

I grew up in a southern state but I don’t have strong feelings about the statues either way. I have no family connection to Civil War times as far as I know. None of my ancestors ever groused about Sherman’s March or those damn Yankee carpetbaggers. We didn’t fly the Stars and Bars or have a license plate with that fat little rebel soldier saying “Forget Hell!” Sometimes it bothers me I don’t get more worked up about the issues of the day like everyone else seems to. No doubt it’s due to a flaw in my character.

I have a friend who is extremely upset about what’s happening to the Confederate statues. He says they are trying to “erase our history”, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. The history will still be there, whether or not a bronze Robert E. Lee watches over a traffic circle in downtown Richmond. It wouldn’t surprise me to see my friend turn up on television someday, protecting a likeness of one of his Confederate heroes.  Every time another city announces there will be a removal he goes off on a tirade. I worry the stress is bad for his health. Lately I try to avoid him whenever I can.

What puzzles me the most is how this all seemed to blow up overnight. Many of the statues at the center of the controversy have been in place for 90 years or more. I suppose it got started by the church killer with the bad haircut in Charleston, which set off the uproar over the Confederate flag. Most of the flags have since been purged from public places across the South, something that was probably overdue. Mississippi hasn’t quite come around with their state flag yet, but that’s because they are, you know, Mississippi. So targeting the Confederate statues was the next logical step in the progression for the perpetually offended, I guess, although I’m not sure they belong in the same category with the flag.

There was a Confederate statue on the grounds of the high school I attended in Arkansas, prominently displayed in front of the main school building. No one ever gave the thing a second thought, not even the black kids. Few of us knew or cared about the history behind it. We thought it was there for us to sit on and smoke.

The statue was of a seventeen year-old boy named David O. Dodd, who had the misfortune of being executed by the Union Army for spying. The United Daughters of the Confederacy installed it in 1910 and it graced the school grounds for sixty-four years until it was relocated to the back of the county courthouse in 1974. In the 42 years since, young master Dodd has stood there, stoically contemplating the lake beyond the highway bypass, largely unnoticed until recently, when someone decided his presence was offensive and he should be taken down. David O. Dodd was an unlucky teenager whose punishment was unjust in the eyes of many who were alive at the time. He wasn’t even in the Confederate Army. The fate of his likeness remains up in the air.

The question now on many minds is what happens next, after all the Confederate statues have been relocated to museums or weedy corners behind city maintenance barns. In what direction does the attention of the perpetually offended turn? Are they coming for you next, Mr. Jefferson? What about you, General Washington? We can’t have the faces of slave owners on our money and our mountains, can we? Never mind your heroic deeds and your insightful crafting of our nation’s government. It’s not enough. Smarter men would have known that 240 years in the future they would be judged by a different set of standards than those of the time in which they lived.

My anxiety ridden friend says just sit back and watch. Like Winter, it’s coming. He may be right. These are strange times we live in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Minnesota

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The minute I cross the state line from Iowa into Minnesota on Interstate 35 and I pass the very tall Welcome to Minnesota stone marker formed in the shape of Minnesota everything around me seems cleaner and greener and the landscape takes on a gentle roll whereas in Iowa just moments earlier I hadn’t noticed that. Even the crops look more vibrant, like they have been tended with extra care, which is not possible really because it’s well established that Iowan’s do know a thing or two about farming.

One of the first buildings of note near the interstate in southern Minnesota, just past the ranch where large elk feed on the prairie grass, is an historic Lutheran church, and every time I pass by it I think of Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion.  I’ve been admirer of Mr. Keillor’s for some time. I read his newspaper column faithfully and I often listened to his radio program on Saturday if I happened to be in my car when it came on.  I read one of his novels years ago, Lake Woebegone Days I think was the title. Lutherans figured prominently in that story, as they do in much of Mr. Keillor’s writing and storytelling about Minnesota. He seems like a sensible man to me, Mr. Keillor does, grounded you might say, which seems to be a common trait and a source of pride among the states’ natives. He is a Minnesotan for life apparently, even wealth and fame could not entice him to move away. I believe he lives on the hill that overlooks downtown St. Paul where wealthy fur traders and railroad magnates built homes more than a century ago.

I worked in Minnesota for the first time in 1998, because of a large and destructive hail storm. A co-worker who lived in Burnsville at the time assured me the storm was a fluke and I would never be back. “It never hails in Minnesota”, he said. And so of course it has hailed in the Twin Cities almost every year since then, and I have considered it my good fortune to make several extended trips there, and also to Rochester, Duluth and once even to Moorhead. This most recent visit is my eighth, and I am happy to say that as far as my feelings go about Minnesota the bloom is still on the rose.

It was another hail storm that brought me back to Minnesota this June; this time Coon Rapids and Blaine were the ravaged communities. I spent twelve fine days in The Cities, which is how the locals economize the name Twin Cities to something more efficient, efficiency being another respected trait shared by the native peoples, and I feel like I have earned the right to do the same because over the course of my career I have worked in Minneapolis and St. Paul often enough, when added together, to qualify for residency.

Wednesday night is Bingo Nite at the Chanticlear Bar and Grill in Maple Grove, a suburb of northwest Minneapolis, and I can testify the desire to participate in the game overcomes all natural feelings of resistance. On this particular night my bar mate to my left won the second round of Four Corners, but the jackpot had to be shared with another winner and he was noticeably disappointed. By the time we got to Cover All his lady friend had arrived and she assailed him so with her non-stop chatter that the man couldn’t concentrate on the eight cards he was playing. He eventually distracted her with a handful of pull tabs he bought from a girl in a glass-walled booth in the corner of the bar. It was a stroke of genius and I silently saluted him for his quick thinking. Then I ordered another beer.

The Chanticlear is known for pizza, but I had the walleye on two different nights because when you’re in Minnesota it just seems natural to order walleye. They serve it broiled and fried at the Chanticlear, and it’s good, but not nearly as good as the walleye tacos I had in Stillwater on Sunday, with a Finnegan’s amber ale.  The best walleye I ever tasted was a few years ago at a dive bar in Eagan, MN. called the Valley Lounge. The Valley has cracked plastic booths and dank bathrooms and the dirtiest indoor-outdoor carpet you are ever likely to see, but the people are friendly, sometimes maybe too much, and the beer is cold and sold at working man’s prices. Walleye is not normally on the menu at The Valley. In fact I’m not sure there is a menu. I had never seen them serve anything but microwave pizza on previous visits, but on this Friday night a mess of freshly caught walleye was somehow procured, and they fried them and sold it with potatoes and a vegetable for $9. It was as close to a spiritual experience as I have ever come eating fish; even bad karaoke couldn’t spoil it.

In summertime it is impossible to find a mid-range hotel in America that is not overrun on the weekends with kids who belong to sports leagues, with their parents and siblings in tow. In most places the teams play baseball or soccer, however this is Minnesota, and so I was not surprised when I wandered down to the lobby on Friday afternoon and found it full of junior hockey players from Fargo.  They do love their hockey in Minnesota, and Fargo too, I suppose. A few years ago I went to a Minnesota Wild pre-season hockey game at a large arena in downtown St. Paul and the building was packed to the rafters. People were rabid with passion for a game that didn’t even count. It made me a little nervous, I have to say, much like my father said he felt when he and my mother visited a beer hall in Munich a few years ago and the Germans started singing patriotic songs. It was a movie he’d seen before, he said, and he found it unsettling. Anyway, the hockey kids from Fargo were generally well behaved, and so were their parents, which is saying something, considering the volume of beer and wine they consumed.

In the late 1990’s I worked in Moorhead, MN, across the river from Fargo. It was a year of record snowfall and when the forty-foot snow drifts melted in the warm spring sunshine the Red River left its banks and spread slowly for miles over the flat plains of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. It was a flood of historic proportions to the dismay of many, especially the residents of Grand Forks, ND, which took the brunt of it. I did a lot of driving around in both states that spring, and I liked to listen to AM radio to see what the locals were up to. You hear things on rural AM radio that you won’t hear anywhere else: gardening tips, someone has a stove for sale, amateur baseball games, a swap meet at the fairgrounds, pheasant season dates, new books at the library, spaghetti supper this Friday, car care advice and the ubiquitous farm report, always at noon. What you hear on the AM dial is usually dull as dishwater but at the same time it’s hard to resist listening.

On this particular day back then the northern folks were excited about the flooding, as you might expect, but they were downright pissed about the way they were being portrayed in the movie Fargo, which had been released a few weeks earlier. They were most deeply wounded by the accents spoken by the movie characters, which they claimed sounded nothing at all like them. The “you betcha’s” and the “doncha knows” were flying fast and furious as one chagrined caller after another claimed offense. But to me they sounded exactly like the characters in the movie. Holy buckets, the whole thing was as absurd as it was hilarious. Yah, the Coen brothers themselves could not have scripted it better.

When my business came to an end on a Friday I left Minneapolis before dawn to avoid the rush hour traffic. This time of year dawn breaks at around 4:30 am, which is annoying because the sun doesn’t set the night before until almost 10:30. Okay that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I crossed the Iowa state line before 7 am, and even in the glow of the forgiving early sun things looked a little bit scruffier, a little less well kept than they had just a couple of miles behind me. It could be my imagination, but I really don’t think so. Adjo Minnesota. (That’s goodbye in Swedish.) I’ll return again someday, your crazy weather virtually guarantees it.


							
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The Best Worst Thanksgiving Ever

My family and I spent this Thanksgiving in Lower Arkansas. In the timber country down near the state line with Louisiana. It was not something we had planned to do. It was a last minute decision. Spur of the moment. It was Sara who brought us all together there. Sara, my wife’s niece. Sara the lost soul. Sara the black sheep. Sara the hopeless drug addict. Sara, one of the sweetest people I ever met.

Sara’s trouble started at college almost two decades ago. There a boyfriend introduced her to cocaine. She was hooked from the get-go. The craving was all-consuming. The boyfriend who set the budding nightmare in motion couldn’t deal with it, so he left. Sara gravitated to others who shared her new-found compulsion. She discovered other drugs; methamphetamine and crack. Somehow she kept it hidden from the family and also from a good man named Randall. He fell in love with her and they were married. Luckily Randall had money, and after Sara’s demons became common knowledge he spent it generously trying to help her. She went to a dozen treatment clinics all over the country. Some as prestigious as Mayo. She always got better, but it never lasted. Inevitably she would relapse. One day Sara sold her wedding ring for drug money. For Randall it was the final straw, and he divorced her. No one in the family blamed him. On the contrary, we were grateful he had tried so hard.

Sara moved back and forth between her mother’s house and her father’s. Both of them kicked her out at least once. She took drugs under their roofs. She ran up their credit cards. But neither could stay mad at her for long. One of them always took her back. Sara had that effect on people. Earlier this year her mother had her committed. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Medicines were prescribed. When she was released she went head over heels for Jesus. She spent hours reading her Bible. Her father said she talked out of her head.

Despite all the heartbreak she caused Sara was loving and she was loved. None of the terrible things she did were done with malice. The pain she brought on herself and her family was the byproduct of her illness. She was lost in the world. She was sick. It seemed no one, no matter how many degrees hung from their wall, could find the way to help her. She had no answers of her own. Then she found one, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

She was supposed to attend church with her mother and step-father. But she begged off. She told them she had cramps. She washed her clothes and cleaned her room. Then she went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She undressed and stepped inside. No one knows how long she stood there while the water washed over her. No one knows if she was happy or sad, frightened or calm. No one knows if she smiled or cried. All we know for certain is that she aimed a pistol at her heart and pulled the trigger.

Her parents and her siblings were devastated, of course. So were we all, to a slightly lesser degree. We were shocked but not surprised. Tears flowed freely at the visitation on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. Red eyes and sniffling noses were more common than not. The casket was near the front of the chapel. It was teal and had seashell handles. It was closed, and I was grateful for that. Randall came to pay his respects. Some of the longest embraces from Sara’s mother and her sisters were reserved for him. Randall has remarried, and his wife was welcomed with smiles and hugs. She supported him with quiet dignity through the visitation and the burial. It could not have been easy.

At the cemetery we stood in a half-circle under a clear blue sky and waited for the pastor to begin. He started by intoning the evils of sin. I thought, no, please don’t go there. Not here. Not now. Mercifully he changed course and kept to tradition. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We sang a prayer to the tune of Amazing Grace. It was a clumsy effort. And then it was over. As the mourners drifted down the hill to their cars I saw Randall at the casket under the canvas tent. He stood there alone with his head bowed. His wife waited with the rest of us, giving him time and space. I can’t imagine what thoughts went through his mind. They must have been profoundly sad.

With all the dismal ingredients in place and all the dark stars in alignment, it appeared this Thanksgiving was a slam dunk for the worst Thanksgiving ever. So much sorrow. So many tears. So many questions. How could anything good come of it? But strangely, something did. From this giant basket of bitter lemons that was foisted upon us, we still managed to make some lemonade.

It started on Thursday, when my wife insisted we would have a Thanksgiving meal together as a family, come hell or high water. So we did. We gathered at the Kozy Kitchen Cafe, ten of us at a long table. It was the first time I remember being anyplace other than at home or at a relatives on this, my favorite holiday. I thought it would be weird, eating Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant in a strange town. But it wasn’t. Thanksgiving is more about who you’re with than where you eat. I probably always suspected that, but I know for certain now. We feasted on fried turkey and fried chicken and vegetables cooked Southern style; cabbage and turnip greens, black eye peas, beans and ham, green beans and cornbread dressing with cranberry sauce. It was all delicious, especially when washed down with a glass of sweet tea.

Later we drove to my brother-in-law’s house, some thirty miles away.  Around 8 o’clock, his courage bolstered by beer, Robert invited me out on the front porch. Robert is my youngest daughter’s boyfriend. He made nervous small talk for a few minutes. Then he came to the point. He said he planned to propose at Christmas. He asked for my blessing. I pretended to think it over. I asked him some serious, father-in-law type questions. I paused for dramatic effect. Then I gave him what he wanted. So he hugged me. Hard. Like a lot of young people these days, Robert’s a hugger. I’m not.

On Friday after the funeral we met for barbeque and Razorback football at Sara’s father’s house, and we did what we could to take his mind off of his broken heart. That night we went downtown, where we had a Mexican dinner on an outdoor deck among the Christmas lights that decorated the light poles and the County Courthouse across the street. Horse-drawn carriages trimmed in white lights went round and round the courthouse square. A loud and festive Christmas Train did likewise. This time it was just my family, and Robert, and as I looked down the table at our daughters and their chosen men and our grandchildren, I thought how lucky we were, my wife and I, that we could spend this time with them together in this place. For a few moments it was almost perfect, as the reason for our being there receded from my thoughts, and a warm feeling of pride and gratitude, augmented by a couple of outstanding margaritas, came over me.

We all parted ways on Saturday morning, back to our routines. There will be a period of grieving, and hopefully one of healing. My wife will check on her brother a couple of times a week for the foreseeable future, just to be sure he is okay.

If I could talk to Sara one last time I would tell her I hope she found what she was looking for. I would say I am happy her demons are vanquished, but I’m sorry the cost was so high. I would tell her we will all be okay, but she has left a hole in the world, especially for her mother and father and her brother and sisters. They will never be quite the same. And I would say to her that I hope, above all, she has finally found some peace. Vaya con Dios. You will be missed.

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The Rally Mantis Is For Real

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August is already half-gone and it’s hard to believe. Signs of the approaching Fall are beginning to appear. Footballs are flying over at the high school practice field while the marching band rehearses their formations in the parking lot. My tomatoes are once again infested with worms, despite a liberal application of Sevin dust. And the Royals have done just enough since the turn of the month that some people believe they still have a shot at a Wild Card spot, despite being 6.5 games back, a probability that comes in at a whopping 1.2% chance of success.  It’s a crazy idea to be sure, but Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer are hitting again, and lately the rotation has been consistently good. Even Dillon Gee got a win last night. So it makes perfect sense that a Praying Mantis gets the credit for the recent good fortune.

Actually the Royals are on their second mantis now, because the first one expired on a road trip to Minnesota under suspicious circumstances. Local authorities have been stingy with information. Rally Sr. had appeared in the Royals dugout several days earlier on a home-stand.  The team promptly went on a run, posting a 5-1 record, and whether he wanted it or not, Rally the Praying Mantis had a new purpose in what is normally a very short life. The attention may have been too much. After the ill-fated trip to Minnesota, Rally Jr. showed up in the visitor’s dugout in Detroit, and when the Royals went on to sweep the punchless Tigers, a fair number of otherwise rational people began suggesting there was powerful juju at work.

Time will tell. But one thing is obvious. The boys are winning again, and they are having fun doing it. They’re loose and they smile a lot and they are playing good baseball. They seem to be reveling in the joy that comes from just playing the game, and to hell with all that other stuff. Whether or not it results in a trip back to the post-season remains to be seen, but it could be that the Royals have the rest of the American League right where they want them.

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Lower the lifeboats, cue the orchestra, it’s all over but the crying.

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Mark today, July 20, as the day in 2016 when the Kansas City Royals were realistically, if not mathematically, eliminated from the post season. The Cleveland Indians came to town and beat them in their own house like a rented mule, taking two out of three, and those two weren’t close. It was Grant vs Lee, Iceberg vs Titanic, Ali vs some random math major plucked from the freshman class at MIT. The Royals are now nine games back, and this AAA line-up doesn’t have the chops to overcome it. Stick a fork in ’em. They’re done.

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