One of the sweet bits of sanity and humanity I look forward to this week between the holidays is lunch with a friend I met our freshman year in college.
No matter how long it’s been since the last time, it always seems like yesterday. The timing is never not perfect.
He leads the kind of life I hold in the highest esteem. Centered on family, simplicity, love, and music.
It was music that first brought us together. We were both drummers and band geeks, both mad for the music of the 50’s. While my love stopped at my ears and heart, his coursed through his very veins.
We were living in the dorms when we made plans to go see Little Richard at what was then the I.C. Light Amphitheater at Station Square in Pittsburgh. Saturday night I swung by his room in Martin Hall to pick him up. I knocked on his door in my customary t-shirt and jeans. He opened the door dressed to the nines in an electric purple suit, wing tips, his hair pomped for the circumstance.
While I thought we were going to a concert, he reminded me that we were, in fact, going to Rock N’ Roll church.
He may be (I’ve never thought of this in this way, so forgive me if it bobs and weaves a bit) the most rooted person I know.
His lips have never touched alcohol. He doesn’t swear. Faithfully attends church. Though he’d be the first to tell you he’s no angel. He’s the son of a preacher man, and has always kindled an ornery flicker in his eye that comes standard with that territory. But always within acceptable tolerances.
He likes to tell the story of when we were freshmen in the college marching band, and he first laid eyes on a pretty sophomore sax player walking into rehearsal. He turned to me and said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” He did. They still are.
Since graduation he’s became more than a pillar in our old college town. He’s an oak tree. His is the voice that, for over 30 years, has gotten Waynesburg outta bed and through their Monday mornings from 6 a.m. to noon on WANB radio. A voice that has announced every holiday parade on High Street, every Rain Day (look it up), and, for the past decade and a half on a mid-September Saturday, a “50’s Fest,” that has turned downtown into the most awesome car cruise this side of Happy Days.
Most gloriously (in my opinion), for 30 years and counting, his is the voice that has kept folks dancing in their kitchens and living rooms Sunday evenings from 6 to midnight with his oldies show, Greene County Gold. The show’s ingredients are as timeless and perfect as a vodka martini. He plays only music from the 50s through 1969. Each week he introduces one New Old Song – a song between those years he’s never played on air before (a whispering reminder that time and age are irrelevant to new discoveries). An hour in to each show, he hosts the 7 O’Clock Challenge – pitting two renditions of the same song against each other and letting the people decide the superior of the two. Incidentally (and cosmically), the night he put Dusty Springfield and Aretha’s versions of Son of A Preacher Man into the octagon, I forced myself to shut the radio off before a winner was announced, since the Universe knows that it’s a moot comparison as Dusty and Aretha are as Jupiter and Zeus – god of all gods in their respective pantheons.
But the magic of each episode, the metaphorical bartender’s shake of the martini, is the open lines for requests and dedications.
In an age where we can summon any song at any moment and any place without lifting a finger, he reminds us that the difference between interaction and transaction is only … everything. There is an ineffable magic in the daisy chain. Thinking of a song that makes you think of someone, some place, some time, some thing, the pause in your Sunday to punch in those 10 digits, the crescendoing expectation of one ring, two rings, his answer. The speaking aloud of ‘From’ and ‘To,’ and … your sacred offering. Hanging up and waiting for the gift to be delivered.
The timing never not perfect.
What comes spilling out of your speakers filling the glass perfectly to its rim.
Alexa, … go to hell.
For years (years), whenever he’d pick up in his DJ voice, I’d anonymously whisper, “Play Misty for Me,” — an ode to the unsettling 1971 movie starring Clint Eastwood — which never failed to elicit his wonderful non-DJ laugh. “Mister … Riddell.”
We’d briefly chat, I’d remind him what a treasure he is, and then make that evening’s request.
When the kids were babies, I’d call in for Splish Splash during Sunday night bath time. By the time they’d outgrown it, they knew the words and, more importantly, The Twist.
In the years since bath time, it’s been all Sam Cooke. Usually a toss up between “Good Times” (I ain’t felt this good since I don’t know when, and I might not feel this way again …) or “Havin’ A Party.” (Hey, Mr. DJ … keep those records playin’ … ‘cause I’m havin’ … such a good time … dancin’ … with my baby.).
I’ve often said that, for me, The Day the Music Died was when the station’s owner switched WANBs signal with another radio station’s, which resulted in WANB not carrying beyond the cozy confines of Greene County. Thus leaving the author, in the next county over, high and dry. Not exaggerating when I say that Sunday nights for me haven’t been the same since.
That said … before my daughter got her driver’s license, I’d drop her off and pick her up from a Sunday evening youth group at a church in downtown Washington. Out of habit and stubborn faith, I’d always try in vain to tune in the oldie’s show. Til one evening when I arrived early to pick her up, and pulled into a front row parking spot. Finessing the dial like a safe cracker, I somehow received a pristine signal. I remember an old tv show where the locals had to climb a telephone poll to make a phone call. Until my daughter got her license, that was me on Sunday nights, arriving early and pulling into my parking spot, the one location in the entire county that picked up 105.1. I’d call in a request, and then make my daughter wait the two minutes and twenty-three seconds until Sam Cooke’s party was finished. Driving down the hill back through town I felt like Moses skipping down Mt. Sinai.
In the two years since my daughter got her driver’s license, I’ll still occasionally shoot him a Sunday night text. “Spinning tonight?” There is always reassurance in his reply … knowing he is still there, holding his flickering candle steadfast against the wind.
Alas, illness, both direct and indirect, has conspired to keep us from our annual ‘week between the holidays’ lunch this year. A co-worker of his has been under the weather the past two weeks, leaving him to pick up the slack at the station, robbing him of his time off. Tuesday and Wednesday my eyes watered and my nose dripped non-stop. Yesterday, my head began pounding on its floor and ceiling like an elderly landlord trying to break up a frat party. Went to the doctor yesterday, hoping that they may prescribe a decapitation.
They called to inform me that I tested positive for RSV and good luck managing the symptoms.
While I am missing our connection in its corporeal form, I have chosen to invest the hours of what would have been our ‘week between’ lunch in the good company of our long friendship (see above).
Out of habit and stubborn faith.
Sam Cooke is on my radio, and I am conjuring the rest … the ineffable magic of the daisy chain.
His text letting me know he’s arrived early.
Our parking lot hug hello.
His picking out the appetizer.
Pausing and bowing our heads so he can say Grace before we dig in. (Again, roots.)
Us picking up where we left off.
Catching up on families.
What we’re listening to.
What we’re reading.
Listening with smiles on our faces.
Goofing with our server.
Melting time for a couple hours.
Arguing over the bill. The loser making a point to lay claim to the next one.
Another parking lot hug.
Reminding him of the treasure he is.
Wishing my good friend the happiest of birthdays. (Born THIS day.)
Until the next time.