Fathers and Sons, Righteous riffs

Wing Man

He’s always the initiator, as I’m reluctant to impose on the 20-year-old’s social calendar. 

Over Friday lunch he asks … “Drover’s tomorrow night?” 

Me: You work? 

He: ‘Till seven. 

Me: (calculating drive-time) Might make us a little late. Proly crowded on a Saturday night. 

He: I could see if I could move my shift up an hour. Leave at six? 

Me: You can do that? 

He: I can ask. 

Me: I’m game. Just let me know. 

For the uninitiated, Drover’s is a most sacred place. 

The one constant on our family’s annual summer to-do list — its bona fides spoken of in unequivocal and reverent tones. 

Best Wings on the planet.

There is no debate. There is Drover’s. And there is everyone else.  

Consistently fried to crispy perfection. Every time. Never under- or overdone.  Sauces sublime.

 And part of a larger ritual born of, and bursting with, expectation. 

Located just across the West Virginia border in Wellsburg, Drover’s requires about a 30 minute pilgrimage, give or take, depending on whether or not you get behind a slowpoke on two-lane 844. A 20-mile drive out in the country, subjectively glorious, up and down deliberate hills. Through sprawling wide open spaces, farms and fields on either side. The slow down squeeze through the occasional tiny town.  I say subjectively glorious because Karry detests the drive. Not for the scenery. For the misery of driving it home in the dark, and the persistent prospect of hidden critters wandering across the road. 

Since she never lets me drive (she equally hates being a passenger, and my driving), I am free to savor every aspect, encouraging windows down both ways in hopes of catching a concentrated blast of freshly mowed field, and the occasional tinge of equally fresh cow manure that signals the city you have just left behind. 

At precisely 3:49 p.m. Friday, I get the confirming text …

Schedule change. Leaving at 6. Drover’s o’clock tomorrow. 

Flag planted. Pilgrimage on. Preparations begin in earnest. 

Saturday morning, the boy packs a salad for work. 

Me, I precisely calibrate my entire Saturday to be showered and ready by 5:45 p.m.  — morning omelet by Emma, a humbling 10K at the track, lunchtime fast, backyard mow.

Peter pulls in from his shift at 6:15, leaves the car running, changes out of his work clothes and into t-shirt and shorts. 

I climb in the passenger side, totally content with being his wing man on a boys Saturday night. 

He cues the soundtrack …. 

___

Among the things I love about my son: when he gets interested in something, he goes rabbit-hole deep. While I’ve always encouraged, his tastes have always been his own. Always, he shares and I appreciate, though his interests have never included anything we could particularly bond over: hunting, lawn equipment, car mod-ding, golf (egads), etc. 

Until now. 

His current addiction: classic guitar rock and heavy metal. 

He’s over-the-moon for all things Van Halen, AC/DC and all their contemporaries. Came upon it by himself. And as with his past dalliances, he ain’t no skimmer.

He’s YouTube dumpster-dived interviews, histories, backstories. Stuffed his Spotify playlists full of power chords. Plays tunes for me. Pumps me with questions. Asks me if I’ve heard …. prompts me to rank things. Favorite this … Top that. Over lunch the other day he threw out, “Worst songs of all time?” 

Delicious. And for the record, a toss-up between Every Rose Has Its Thorn, GNR’s cover of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, and all those shitty Aerosmith ballads.

In March, he put together a full 64-entry bracket (replete with play-in games) of the greatest guitar songs of all-time.  We painstakingly agonized and argued over who to advance the way the passionate nerds do over the most trivial things.  

His ears are wide open. 

Swears that Van Halen I is by far the hardest and the best in the canon (hard to argue that). Appreciates both what Dave and Sammy brought to their respective tables, but also calls both of them out for their shortcomings (Dave not really a singer, Sammy way too poppy at times, etc.).

As an aside, my work as a parent here? Pretty much done.  

He’s teaching me things I never knew. Exhibit A: that Panama was Eddie Van Halen’s attempt to write an AC-DC song. Give it a listen. You’ll totally hear it.  And never hear it the same again.  

About a month ago, he bought himself a cheap electric guitar and a tiny amp. Has been spending hours in the garage picking out riffs. When he was a kid, I was convinced he had perfect pitch, and have always wished he had a heart for music to match his ear. In conversation, he’s now peppering his effusions with observations on tunings and such. And he’s not interested in flying his fingers over the frets. His heart is for pure thunder … more Malcolm than Angus. 

___

He pulls us out of the driveway. 

Windows down. Volume up.  Conversation easy. 

We make our way out of town like bandits in a getaway car. 

Shoot to Thrill (live). 

Confessed to him that I was gassed after about 40 minutes at the track this afternoon. Then, Shoot to Thrill came on my playlist, and coaxed another 20 minutes I didn’t know I had in me.

Ever since I was a teenager, it’s seldom taken more than three chords to convince me I am invincible whenever I need to fool myself.

 We dissect the breakdown. Malcolm’s sinister pickup notes as it kicks back in. 

Peter shares the backstory of Phil Rudd’s ‘trouble with the law,’ a few years back. 

Fresh cut fields blow through our open windows. The fullness of late spring in the country.

He: You ever heard of Steve Vai?

Me: Heck yeah. You know he played guitar in the DLR band?

Peter had not yet made it to that chapter in his Van Halen history book. Made a mental note. 

Runaround (Van Hagar) comes on.    

I’d forgotten about that one. Rocks hard until Sammy gets a little too poppy before the chorus (Sammy being Sammy). 

He takes the hills fast but knows to slow when we come upon a tiny town. 

Not a teenager anymore. I make a mental note.

We cross the West Virginia border. 

Holy Diver.

Peter gushes. I nod knowingly and affirm Dio’s place on the Mt. Rushmore of lead singers.

Within minutes, we pull into the lot. I survey the scene and exhale. Busy, but not teeming ….

___

If you look up Drover’s online, you’ll see it’s a refurbished 1848 tavern, originally opened as an inn to travelers and ‘drovers’ who were moving their goods along the toll pike.  It was converted into a restaurant in 1967 and, as the website says, reinvigorated by its current owner in 1986. The website also mentions its three period, antiqued, fireplaced rooms inside. You’ll have to check out the website to learn more about those. 

We’ve never eaten inside. 

We never make it past the picnic tables under the outdoor pavilion right off the gravel parking lot. 

Warm weather. Cold beer. Crispy wings baptized in buttery sauce. Far as I’m concerned, picnic tables under an outdoor pavilion is about as good as it can possibly get. To quote Kurt Vonnegut quoting jazz pianist Fats Waller: “Somebody shoot me while I’m happy.” 

Another reason to love the picnic tables is that they are first-come, first-served. Seldom a wait. True to form, while the line’s out the door for indoor dining, we find a spot at one end of an outside table just vacated, and grab our benches.

Kerrie, the waitress who always tends the pavilion, stops by after a bit and asks for our order so she can get it in before bussing the table. 

We had ours ready at 3:49 p.m. the day before.

He: large buffalo garlic, ranch for dipping, waffle fries with cheese. 

Me: large hot (simple perfection), bleu cheese on the side. 

Shared order of bottle caps (fried jalapenos) for an appetizer.

Sweet tea for him. Sam Adam’s Summer on draft for me. 

Drinks come. Food’ll be a little while. Fine by us. We’re in no great hurry. It’s worth any wait.

He pulls out his phone. Holds it to my ear. He recorded himself practicing the night before. Slow takes on the opening of “For Those About to Rock.” The changes kinda’ sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention he tells me. Each attempt a little smoother than the previous. By the end he’s got it pretty much figured out. I can totally hear it.

Told him if he keeps going, he might make me break out my old drums this summer, which have sat in storage since he came along 20 years ago. I wouldn’t expect much, but am reasonably confident I could properly channel Phil Rudd enough to pound out four on the fucking floor.

As I said it, it occurred to me that it was my Dad who brought me to the drums in the first place, through the lens of his music. The big bands. Jazz. The Great American Songbook. He let me find my own way to it at my own pace. As I was learning, I’d pepper him with questions. You ever hear of….? Who do you like better ….? And once my ears were wide open I’d play him tunes that I dug for his approval. He’d just smile and nod knowingly, affirming Coleman Hawkins’ and Lester Young’s place on the Mt. Rushmore of tenor players.

Twenty years later and here we all are again. 

A son. A father. Cue the music ….

___

We say a quick, post-appetizer-apologetic Grace and dive in.

The wings, as always, are mic-drop transcendent. Done to perfection. He asks for extra sauce (pro move). We reverently baptize in our respective ranch (he) and bleu (me).

We savor. Take our time picking the bones clean. Talk more music. 

In between bites, I suggest he check out DLR’s Damn Good Times. Steve Vai’s background is otherworldly, though I know it’ll be way too slow for Peter’s tastes.

We slowly deplete the fat stack of thin napkins to police our hands and faces as we work our way through. 

After the ritual wet-nap cleansing, he extends his right hand. We pound fists. Arise from our picnic table. Walk across the gravel lot back to the car. 

He puts the windows down. Turns the volume up. 

Van Halen. 

Dave. 

Everybody Wants Some.  

He extends his right arm for an encore fist pound.

Drives us off into the dark Saturday night, the country road filling our lungs as full as our bellies.

Before Peter came along, I remember driving with my dad to and from gigs on Saturday nights just like this. 

The changes can sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention.

And unless you hit record on occasion, you can’t appreciate how truly far you’ve come.

Damn good times.  

          

 

 

  

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Letters for Maggie

Remembrance: Mom in relief ….

(Mother’s Day, 2021)

Ever since Mom’s passing, whenever I find myself missing her, I walk my memory back to being nine years old and standing in our kitchen.

I was sad as hell. 

The way you get when you’re nine and you have no one to play with on a school’s out, full summer sun, Mullen Street morning. The kind that, when you’re a kid, is just too good to let go to waste.

No Danny. No Jeff. No Jerry. No Amy. No Billy. 

Not a single soul to pass ball with. 

If you were nine in our neighborhood, this was a crime against humanity. 

Standing in the kitchen, I made no secret of my discontent, moping around in all my misery. 

Mom finally asked what was wrong, and I told her. She ran down the full roster of my friends. I shot down each one with a “Not home … not answering the phone … car’s not there ….”

Moved by equal parts not wanting to see me sad and finding me annoying AF, she disappeared into the dining room, opened the closet, and reappeared wearing a ball cap and holding Dad’s baseball glove. 

“I’ll pass with you.” 

This was not a solution to my problem. 

For starters, she looked absurd. 

This is the lamest idea ever, I remember thinking. I’d never seen Mom throw anything other than fits at my Dad. 

That’s all right, I said. 

“Come on, let’s go,” she persisted, popping the ball from her right hand into her gloved left. 

No, really, I deflected. 

This went on for a good couple minutes. 

In recorded history, though, no one ever won a test of will against Maggie Riddell. 

So I ended up grabbing my glove and, still in full mope, begrudgingly followed her out to the street in front of our house. 

As we spaced ourselves just a few feet apart, I remember thinking: this is going to be awful. 

And it was. 

She lobbed one that bounced in front of me and came to rest harmlessly at my feet. I tried to aim at her glove so she wouldn’t have to move to try and catch it. 

She ended up having to chase the ball down the street anyway. 

She was atrocious. Couldn’t throw or catch to save her life.

But she got the biggest kick out of the whole thing. 

When I was about to toss one to her, she’d screw her cap on, pound her fist in Dad’s glove, bend her knees, and say something baseball-ish, like, “Put ‘er in there.” The fact that she had herself giggling by the time my throw was on its way didn’t help her fielding percentage. 

Never one to take herself too seriously, she was totally in her element in spite of her incompetency. 

She’d attempt a pitcher’s windup and laugh like hell when the ball sailed opposite of her aim. 

We soon settled on throwing easy grounders to each other, and eventually lost ourselves in trying to make it as easy for the other as possible. 

I have no idea how long we were out there. 

Probably wasn’t more than 10 or 15 minutes. 

The only thing I remember is that, by the end, I wasn’t sad anymore. 

__

It was the first and only time we ever threw ball.  

Maybe because she was so awful. Maybe because we never needed to again. Maybe because having no one to play with was a blessed rarity in our neighborhood. 

Or maybe because once was enough. 

Because on rare occasions, I still find myself sad as hell. The way you get when you’re 50 and know the person you wish you could call isn’t home anymore.

So I walk my memory back to the old kitchen. Watch her disappear into the dining room, and reappear in her ball cap, looking ridiculous. 

And I follow her, still in full mope, out to the street in front of our house. 

I see her wind-up. Pound Dad’s glove. How she laughed. 

And we lose ourselves in trying to make it as easy on the other as possible. 

I stay for only as long as I need to. 

Until I’m not sad anymore. 

Always and forever … Mom to the rescue.

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