Early for a Saturday afternoon grocery pick-up, Karry suggests a quick lunch. I offer Panera, among the few destinations one of us likes and the other at least tolerates.
En route the big hat catches her eye, and in a spasm of poor decision making, she audibles.
“What about Arby’s? You’re always talking about it.”
This is true. I talk a lot about Arby’s. Even though it’s been years since I visited one.
I don’t give her the opportunity to reconsider, and we almost screech tires into the parking lot.
We. Are. Home. — my adolescent brain whispers.
Note: I don’t keep my adolescent brain tucked away somewhere, like, in a box in the attic, next to my before-and-after middle school orthodontic molds. No, my adolescent brain has its mail delivered to my middle-age skull, much like a man-child still living at home with his parents. Incidentally, I don’t keep my before-and-after orthodontic molds in the attic, either. I keep them on my bookshelf that leads upstairs.
Karry makes me put them away every time we have company.
Spent the past seven days in isolation after realizing, embarrassingly after the fact, that my taste and smell had abandoned me. I was sitting around a fire in our backyard when it occurred to me I couldn’t smell the fire. Was really taken aback that it took me that long to notice. Then it occurred to me in retrospect that I couldn’t remember tasting my dinner. I think I was tricked by my stuffed nose to believe congestion was the culprit. A positive test the next morning sobered me to the reality.
I spent most of the day after my positive test sitting alone in one half of our garage, isolating. I’d backed out my car for space so I could sit and catch some fresh air from the gray rainy Sunday. Set up a little white folding table and the red camp chair the kids had gotten me for Father’s Day. Lawn equipment and our overstuffed garage pressing in on either side of me. Couldn’t help but think what a sad spectacle I made. I could see through to the woods between our parked cars in the driveway. Spent the entire afternoon in the garage, first listening to the rain, then when it got dark, the crickets. I was listening contentedly to their Sunday night chorus when I caught a glimpse of the damndest thing — a lone lightning bug dancing in front of the woods. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Here it was October, and there he was. Still had some business to tend to, yet and still. Both of us all by our lonesome. One of us oblivious to the other. The other suddenly caring about nothing else in the world.
Made me remember the time I dragged Emma to a theater performance of a Sherlock Holmes play being hosted on Pitt’s campus. I remember little about the production itself (it was pretty awful). What I recall is Emma, in her theater best, spending the entire intermission chasing lightning bugs across the lawn outside the hall as the fireflies danced among the old oak trees. We were both so enchanted I remember us cursing the building’s flashing lights that beckoned us back to our seats when it was time for the second act.
All alone in my red camp chair peeking out from our overstuffed garage, all I had was time.
So as long as the season’s last lightning bug wanted to dance to the crickets, I was staying for the entire encore.
Not comprehensive, or in any particular order … just what comes to one’s mind upon being gifted approximately 18,250 sunrises ….
That, when I was a desperate for a date to a fraternity party, she said yes. And the subsequent circles we danced to Meat Loaf (if I recall), and the subsequent goodnight kiss, and the Johnny Walker Red that may or may not have been responsible for the courage behind that kiss, and, indirectly, the subsequent 29 years.
That I got to be on the same stage with my Dad when he’d close his eyes and shred Harry James’ opening solo on Two O’Clock Jump. The numbers of all the good charts we used to play (#95, #39, #124, #20, #209, #93, #117).
Gathering with my best childhood friends every Christmas to decorate a tree, sip some Old Crow, and bear witness.
A big sister who let me pick out my first rock n’ roll record at the National Record Mart.
A daughter who still says yes when I ask her to read with me, and who savors a good turn of phrase as much as her old man.
A sister who sends me a card, cartoon, or clipping every week to let me know she’s thinking of me.
A son who asks me to hit golf balls with him even though I am beyond redemption. And on the grander scale, a gracious soul who forgives me for having tried way too hard.
Running under all those perfectly aimed and timed fly balls Dad launched just within the waffle-pocket reach of the oversized, Reggie Jackson model Rawlings he bought with the best $25 he ever spent.
Em’s Saturday morning omelets with toast (oh, and while I’m there, her home made mac-n-cheese doused with Red Hot in the manner of holy water).
An older brother who, like the good offensive lineman he was, wore down my parents’ resistances to allow me a clean running lane through my teenage years.
Roger Khan, Roger Angell, John Updike, Myron Cope, Gene Collier, David Halberstam, Roy Blount Jr. and all the others who taught me that good sports writers were just good writers who happened to write sports.
The small graces … squeezing toothpaste on her toothbrush in the morning … walking down the driveway together after taking out the garbage … standing at the sink doing dishes …. blowing kisses to the window while leaving for work in the morning.
My favorite Sunday night Oldie’s DJ.
A sister who raised two beautiful souls on her own and now gets to enjoy her grandchildren, and the occasional glass of wine with her baby brother.
A neighborhood that knew the best recipe for growing adults was to let kids be kids.
Preserving the capacity to be awed.
A mom who saved everything, including the before-and-after-orthodontic molds of my teeth, the BEFORE sample prompting my daughter to re-coil, “That looks like it’s from a North American primate,” which is pretty much exactly what the girls in middle school thought, too.
That holding hands still makes everything OK.
Parents who gave me time and space to figure stuff out.
Chicken wings from Drovers, two with everything and fries with gravy from Shorty’s, a Poorboy without tomato, small fries and a Pabst draft from Potter’s.
Charlie Watts proving that eighth notes and a bemused smile are all one needs to build a pocket big enough to fit an entire world (translation: more is not always better).
Gerard Manley Hopkins writing his arse off for an audience no bigger or smaller than God herself.
Laurel Highlands Class of ’88.
Jazz on a rainy day and blistering guitars ‘neath a starry sky.
Our only family vacation growing up … to Gettysburg and Valley Forge during the Bicentennial. The sound of pee hitting a coffee can in the backseat on our no-stop drive to the middle of the state.
The bewitching crackle of a campfire.
The 1-4-5 progression.
How the very specific scent and feel of crisp late summer Southwestern PA mornings always makes me think of high school band camp.
The old, tiny teacher’s desk from Areford that mom salvaged and refinished … that makes me think of where I came from every time I sit down to write at it.
The best days in my life, summed up in eight words. “I do / It’s a boy / It’s a girl”
Remembering to look up.
Making her laugh so hard she cries.
When they were small enough to carry.
Knowing it’s in as soon as it leaves your hand.
That little dip in our neighborhood that breezes you five degrees cooler like a kiss on the cheek when you’re running down its hill
Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful.
A dry Kettle One martini and/or listening to Paul Desmond (same thing)
Every letter I’ve received in the mail and kept.
Riding in Dad’s Sherwin Williams van on Sunday afternoons looking for a playground hoop with a good net.
Being Santa Claus. Until you’re not.
Winning the in-law lottery.
Peter’s brown-sugar, oven-baked, banana ‘recipe’ he fashioned when he was seven years old, that, when properly muddled with vanilla ice cream, is the key to the universe.
How the smell of second hand smoke always makes me think of Mom.
City Lights Bookstore.
The sound of rain on a metal awning.
Nieces and nephews who made great daughters and sons, better sisters and brothers, and even better mothers and fathers.
All the encouragers.
That I remembered to write most of the good stuff down, to remind me when I forget about the good stuff.
A couple weeks ago Karry was violently cleaning out out the dining room, rooting through old drawers, filling garbage bags with stuff she didn’t want to think twice about. Of the two of us, she is, by far, the most qualified for the task. My wife is not the sentimental type. I, on the other hand, ensure that my wife will always have drawers to clean out. But in the midst of her editing, something gave her enough pause to seek me out downstairs. She tossed an envelope on my desk. “Yeah, you probably forgot about that one.”
On the outside of the envelope, my handwriting:
Inside, a letter. From me to my baby boy. Days before our first Christmas together.
I have no recollection of doing this.
Which is exactly why I did it.
I learned quickly during those eight months that time was no longer to be fucked with. From the moment Dr. Bulseco announced, “It’s a Boy,” we became unwitting passengers on a turbo steamroller, and would spend as much time under it as in the cab.
So, early on I made a point to mark time whenever I could steal a moment. Scribbles in a journal. Postcards from the road. Notes on a computer.
I will too soon miss the taste of Christmas cookies at 3 in the morning.
— Dec. 24, 2014
Pete: what’s that?
Peter (with his hand behind his back): Dad, I found something that I know you love.
Peter: Chicklets (placing two on the desk where I’m working).
Pete: (noticing that they were a little faded) Um, where did you find them?
Peter: In a drawer.
Pete (inspecting the Chicklets a little more closely): Um, how long do you think they’ve been there?
Peter: (thinking) Year, year and a half?
Pete: Thank you for thinking of me.
Peter: There’s still a yellow one up there.
Pete: Save that one for later.
–Oct. 20, 2012
Six words you don’t want to hear from a 10-year-old: “Boy, this carpet is super absorbent.”
–Oct. 18, 2012
My wife, to me, moments ago: “You have this … magnet of weirdness about you.”
–Aug 6, 2012
At the breakfast table this morning, my 10-year-old gives a complete weather forecast for the next five days, including temperature, and chance of rain. After a few seconds of me staring blankly at him, he says, “What? I’m crazy with the doppler.”
–July 24, 2012
My wife just came home and ordered my son to go grab the radio and join her on the patio to listen to the Pirate game outside. Savoring summer like a ripe plumb.
–June 9, 2011
Scientists researching hair growth should study our black lab, who has consistently shed 5-6 Luis Tiant mustaches a day for going on 12 years.
–May 20, 2011
So, passing by the living room, I hear my ten-year-old son say to his six-year-old sister over the TV, “Yes, I know you’ve been very patient … and for that I’m grateful.”
My first reaction was that my wife had laced dinner with LSD. I fought the urge to enter the living room for fear of seeing my son petting a rainbow-farting unicorn, which would’ve ruined the hallucination.
–April 6, 2011
So, midway through Valentine’s Day dinner last night (which the kids helped set the table for and prepare), my 9-year-old son rises from his chair, cups his hand over my ear and whispers, “Bust a move.” I pull back, and we stare at each other for about 4 seconds in silence … until he nods in Karry’s direction. The sad part is that I think he had a better sense of what he was talking about than I did.
–Feb 15, 2011
(Super Bowl) So, as the Packers lined up for the extra point, my six year old daughter asks, “So, how does a baby get inside a girl’s belly?”
I can’t handle this.
–Feb 6, 2011
Just watched my 5 year old conduct one of her “experiments.”
Step 1: unwrap 5 tootsie rolls
Step 2: put on plate & microwave on high while you go into the living room & watch a few minutes of iCarly.
Step 3: (my favorite) put on a rubber glove (right hand only)
Step 4: with glove hand, spoon the microwaved tootsie roll onto a piece of bread.
Step 5: place bread in plastic bag
Step 6: finish watching iCarly.
–Nov. 16, 2010
Over lunch ….
Dad: I’m a good dancer.
Peter: Let’s just say no one dances quite like you.
–Sept 6, 2010
Yard sale dialogue:
Pete: You really need to work on your positivity.
Karry: It’s difficult when you say dumb things.
–June 12, 2010
So, my son (9), home from school, fires up the Guitar Hero. I walk in, he’s just finished shredding Iron Maiden, and he’s sipping Mellow Yellow from a martini glass.
That’s more rock n’ roll than I’ve ever been in my life.
–June 3, 2010
After polishing off her mac n’ cheese, my daughter lets out a less-than-dainty burp at the dinner table. Seizing the opportunity, her older brother admonishes, “Emma! Do you see anyone laughing … other than me?”
–May 15, 2010
Five-year-old telling me about her visit to the park.
She: “Dad, I cut my foot,” holding it out for me to see.
Me: “How’d you do that?”
She: “I’m not sure … I wasn’t there when it happened.”
–April 6, 2010
My wife’s last words, before she left for the airport for her four day girl’s weekend? “Don’t even think about putting anything in the washing machine.” Then she did that thing where she kept her eyes fixed on me for several seconds without saying anything, to allow me to imagine the potential consequences.
–Nov. 6, 2009
This morning, I put on School House Rock when the kids got up. When “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here” came on, my son actually said, “I gotta put down the PSP for this.”
So it arrived, like clockwork, as it always does, the Friday after Thanksgiving, humble and nestled amidst the mailbox-clogging catalogs and circulars who are under the complete misapprehension that the responsibility of heralding the season to come belongs to them.
And the smile broke across my face, as it always does, before I even made it back to the front door.
I sat down at the table, and opened it expectantly (think kid at Christmas), and read Patty’s annual hand-written Christmas card, which for (gosh, I guess) over 20 years now, has served as the Official Harbinger of the Holiday Season (TM) of the Riddell household.
I met Patty through her husband John, whom I met when we were both invited to join a new (at that time) 10-piece group, the Brass Knuckles Band (‘Our Sound Will Knock You Out’ – still wince-worthy after lo these many years … ha.). John was the trumpet player in the group’s four-piece horn section (think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc. We also played a lot of cheesy wedding music, which is why I would prefer you think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc.).
As perhaps THE most inconsequential-at-the-time footnote to the experience, I added each band member’s address to my Christmas card list. It was probably around 1993 or 1994 that I first received a holiday card from Patty, which immediately distinguished itself by (1.) arriving the day after Thanksgiving, (2.) being the only lonely Christmas card among an otherwise unread pile of capitalism, and (3.) her accompanying hand-written note.
And every day after Thanksgiving since, I’ve enjoyed a smiling walk back to the front door.
So, we got married on a Saturday. I started grad school on a Monday. In the space where the honeymoon was supposed to go, we instead went on a cruise through Pittsburgh rush hour traffic, Karry riding shotgun to make sure I didn’t get lost.
We launched our new life from the world’s tiniest apartment. Four rooms atop a two-car garage. Bathroom so tight that you couldn’t use the toilet without bumping your knees against the tub.
If we’d consciously based our career choices on trying to make the least amount of money possible, it wouldn’t have looked much different than the English (his) and Social Work (hers) majors whose accompanying student loans kept our hearts and home humble.
With her working full-time and me going to school full time and balancing a research assistantship and a part-time job working nights at the paper, we were often two ships passing in the night. On the rare occasions our schedules intersected, we kept things simple. We put our own spin on dinner and a movie.
Finding ourselves spent and spat out after a long week, we quickly settled on our go to meal: frozen fish sticks drenched in Heinz ketchup accompanied by heaping piles of Kraft Mac n’ Cheese. Washed down with Cokes over ice. When we were feeling fancy, we’d crack open a can of Bush’s Baked Beans for a three-course meal. I took care in evenly distributing the sticks. She’d always insist I take extra. We’d pass the dining room table en route to the living room so we could sit on the floor and watch re-runs of the Six Million Dollar Man (because it was on, and, um, it was awesome).
We’d go for seconds during the commercials.
Last Friday night, rains washed out the creek that floods just about every option to our house. I was on my commute home, oblivious, when Karry called to navigate me home. Take the Jessop Exit, hop on Chestnut by The Tower …. Come up behind Hill House….
Twenty-two years in, my co-pilot still makes sure I don’t get lost.
Pulled the car in the driveway, came up the stairs, and spied her in our tiny kitchen, spent and spat out by a long week.
Neither she nor the breath of a warm oven able to keep a secret.
I plucked the scent from the air, quickly stole a glance at the stove … a boiling pot and the empty blue box of next to it. Behind the boiling pot, a smaller one warming a fresh can of baked beans.
She was feelin’ fancy.
An involuntary smile broke wide across my cheeks.
“Emma doesn’t believe you’re going to eat it, but I set her straight.”
We’ve graduated from a tiny apartment to a tiny house. A kitchen too small for a dishwasher; the nightly sinkfull still keeping our hearts and home humble.
When the timer of our old Brady Bunch oven buzzed, I took care to evenly distribute the fish sticks onto our paper plates. She insisted I take extra. We made room for heaping piles of Kraft and a couple spoonfulls of Bush’s. Poured Cokes over ice.
“Go find us some Six Million Dollar Man,” Karry said as a joke, forgetting that she’d bought me a DVD collection a couple years ago for Christmas.
I fished it out (pun regretted), unopened, from the shelves in the living room.
“No way,” she said.
I dialed up the epic two-part episode from Season 3: The Secret of Bigfoot (starring Andre the Giant as Sasquatch). We sat on the living room floor.
It was as cheesy as the Kraft … and every bit as awesome.
We paused the DVD when we needed to go back for seconds.
For years, we’d always both smile and blush at the remembrance of our “signature” meal.
Last Friday it was only smiles, no blush.
After years of searching in vain for the recipe for a long relationship, I think I’ve finally realized that the secret has nothing to do with any recipe.
Because when one has fish sticks in the freezer, and Kraft in the cupboard, one does not need a recipe.
The secret is in remembering to occasionally pause the DVD to go back for seconds.
Met my sisters at the old house last Saturday to officially start The Process.
Of rummaging, assessing, divvying, donating, and discarding the material and emotional accumulations of two lives intertwined for over 60 years as husband and wife, and nearly as many as Mom and Dad.
I didn’t really have or take the time to think about what to expect.
As odd as it may sound, I was just kinda’ looking forward to experiencing the initiation of The Process through my big sisters’ eyes.
Being the youngest by 10 years, I’ve developed a fairly insatiable curiosity about the early chapters of my parents’ … parenting, and my older siblings’ sibling-ness.
So Saturday I found myself in good company for the bittersweet sorting of and through treasures.
That’s ‘treasure’ in the true sense … of artifacts whose worth transcends and mocks any monetary connotation.
I wasn’t but 30 seconds into my arrival, when my oldest sister Kim unfurled a near life-size version of her seven-year-old self. The likeness produced the same smile it elicited 53 years ago, when Aunt Janet hand-painted it for the rounds of “Pin the Tail on the Kim” that must’ve set a pretty high bar for seven-year-old birthday celebrations in the neighborhood. It’s worth noting that the only artifact that survived my sister’s 7th birthday party was the hand-painted, personalized decoration made by my aunt.
The true gifts aren’t always disguised as gifts.
My sister Laurie ushered me upstairs to my old room. In so many words warned me to brace myself.
That my mom was a packrat was no surprise to me.
But the stacks of lovingly and meticulously—packed tubs that my sisters had extracted from my old bedroom’s closets were not merely the product of someone incapable of throwing things away. They were time capsules whose future value to the one who would open them was well-known by the one who packed them.
I was stopped cold by the first lid I pried off.
Staring back at me was a card from one of the times Billy Karwatske’s Dad took us to the Civic Arena to see professional wrestling, a memory I had had no reason to recall in literally decades. Scanning the names took me back to some BIG moments, like the first time my impressionable 10-year-old ears experienced the truly indescribable reverberation of an arena-full of blood lusty and thirst-quenched Yinzers chanting, “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!” as the larger-than-life Sammartino throttled the overmatched evil in front of him.
The hair on my arms may or may not have still been standing as I literally bounded down the steps to show my sisters, not pausing to consider how little interest they might have in my reminiscing about the first time I saw Andre the Giant in six-man-tag action live. Although we lacked the means for such clinical diagnoses back in a day, I’m pretty sure that the experience was my first time completely LOSING MY SHIT.
Yeah. One item in to the first box I was.
It heralded an afternoon (and afternoons to come) where progress was to be measured in ways other than assessing and editing.
What moved me about all the containers stacked and strewn about my old room had only so much to do with presents from my youth, but much more to do with the presence of my mother, which I felt as strongly on Saturday as I have since her passing last March.
As I lingered in my old bedroom, Mom and I communed over artifacts whose significance had become even greater in their retirement. I’m confident that she took her time (oh, that woman could take her time) recalling each sweet memory before she sealed the lid on another full tub. My memories were of the very same kindred spirit as I began unpacking them.
I eventually sobered (slightly) to the task at hand, appreciating each container as its own chaptered snapshot … of my childhood, teenage years, college, my first jobs, my old newspaper clippings. I managed to stuff my heart, and my old Subaru, with as much as each could accommodate, and, once home, stacked the first row of tubs in a corner of our already over-stuffed garage.
I’ve found myself spending some quality time visiting my past over the past several months. Though I’ve made fresh tracks along familiar and forgotten roads, I have no intentions of dwelling there.
But the sacred act of blowing dust from such beautiful remembrances has opened my eyes …
…to the preciousness of the present
…to the opportunities we all have to make of the moments memories worthy of someday finding their way into tubs sealed like time capsules
… for loved ones to crack open like buried treasure
…and realize anew, like the generation before them, that the true gifts are not always disguised as gifts.
It was a typical divide and conquer evening, only made atypical by the milestone.
Our oldest turned 17 Wednesday.
Karry was on dance duty, which earned her a pilgrimage to Waynesburg to scoop up Emma and her friends, and put me, by default, in charge of wrapping presents and dinner prep.
I would not be Karry’s first-round pick for either chore. Under normal circumstances I’d be lucky to participate in these spring drills as a non-roster invitee.
Admittedly, neither task plays to my strengths (which, generally speaking, fall under a loose category that, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just call “Intangibles.”). Family gift openers have described my wrapping as “primitive,” though I prefer “possessing of a charming, child-like quality.” Regardless, as with most things I’m not particularly skilled at, I compensate with enthusiasm.
So, I flung myself into the task of paper-cladding the humble pile of middle-of-the-week birthday gifts, most of which were feverishly procured slash Amazon-ed within the previous 48 hours (as per family, um, tradition). I fished my emergency stash of Sunday Comics from the drawer of my old Areford Elementary teacher’s desk (that my Mom fished from the ruins of our old neighborhood school about 40 years ago). Snatched the tape from the top drawer of the overstuffed chest where we keep the bills and The Neglected Stacks. In desperation I went digging through The Neglected Stacks for a couple extra blank birthday cards, since we had procured a couple more gift cards than birthday cards, and it somehow felt slightly less lame if we didn’t stuff multiple gift cards into a single envelope.
While digging deep into one of the far left stacks, I slammed the breaks on my feverish search when I happened upon … buried treasure.
From … Toronto. Vancouver. San Antonio. Utah. San Francisco. Las Vegas.
Addressed to … Peter.
All from about 15 years ago. When he was 1-2 years old.
I was both taken aback, and taken back.
I totally forgot that the young parent version of myself used to write him postcards when I went on business trips. Forgot how much I hated leaving him and Karry in the days when miracles were more than a daily occurrence.
I just called home a few minutes ago and heard you saying, “Humpty Dumpty” – Mee Maw taught you that yesterday. And Mom told me that you walked 8 steps on your own. I am soooooo proud of you! Going three days without seeing you smile or hearing you chit-chat is too long.
It was a time machine to when the world was so much smaller … when we harvested simple moments of transcendence by the bushel.
I should be home tomorrow by 9:15 or so … hopefully you are still up. If not, I’ll put a kiss in my hand and put it on your head, unless you are sleeping with your butt in the air!
Yeah, he used to sleep sometimes with his knees under him, which made his butt stick up in the air. Whenever Karry or I would pass by his room and catch a glimpse, we’d call the other and just stand there, smiling in silence at the gift of him just … being. Reading my old words to the young him made me smile anew. And yeah, I remember putting kisses in my hand so I wouldn’t wake him. Sleep was a precious commodity for all involved back then.
Greetings from Vancouver. This is that place that mom showed you on the globe. I saw something today you would have found very cool. Out in the water in the bay I saw an airplane “driving on the water.” And it started driving fast and took off and flew up into the sky.
First time I’d ever seen a seaplane. And I experienced it through the awed eyes of my two year old who wasn’t there. As a wise person once wrote, you can only taste it for the first time once.
Greetings from Las Vegas! You would find lots here to draw your attention. At night you can hear lots of ‘woo woos.’
Woo woos = police cars. I’m not sure Vegas has been described so innocently before or since.
As I carry you with me wherever I go, I see these sites through your eyes.
In the stack were about 10 or so cards I sent over maybe a two-year-period.
At some point, I stopped writing them.
I’m not sure when. And I’m confident it wasn’t any sort of conscious act.
I remember reading a great essay that talked about The Last Time, and how we are seldom aware of The Last Time we’re experiencing something.
The last time you rock your child to sleep in your arms. The last time you read Goodnight Moon. The last time you play catch with your Dad.
The last time your Mom calls to wish you a happy birthday.
I don’t give myself credit for much, but I can honestly say that I think I’ve always possessed a keen sense of the passage of time. I used to journal a lot in those early days of parenthood. I knew that my future self would want to be reminded of all the daily amazings that drew ahs like fireworks and evaporated just as quickly. When I find myself feeling a little untethered, I’ll pluck an old journal from the shelf, and see what the life of the younger Us used to be like.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the people in my pages.
The miracles of the present age are of, um, a different vintage. When he wears pants at the dinner table? Minor miracle.
It’s tempting to believe that your children have always been the same person since birth. The cold fact is they are completely different people today than they once were. And they don’t care about those kids whose smaller clothes used to hang in their closets. The junior in high school doesn’t care that his two-year-old self used to run into my arms every time I came upstairs from work, or that his three-year-old self just had to pull his plastic lawn mower out of the garage and ‘mow’ beside me every time I cut grass, or the great pains he and I took to memorize the choreography to our favorite Wiggles routines. (Gooooo, Captain Go….). Those were gifts from someone other than the young man who now does donuts in the snow in the Wild Things parking lot.
Which brought me back to the small pile of gifts waiting impatiently.
I aborted my search for empty birthday cards.
Re-arranged the treasures in front of me back into a neat pile.
But instead of returning them to The Neglected Stacks, I wrapped the Sunday comics around them (with a charming, childlike quality.). Sealed them with Scotch tape. Tossed ‘em into the small mound.
Moved on to kitchen stadium, where I proceeded to slice a ½ dozen tiny bowls full of veggies, set off two smoke alarms and set one paper plate aflame while Wok-ing the hell out of Peter’s made-to-order-stir-fry-birthday dinner, whose deliciousness almost-but-not-quite made up for the fact that I didn’t put it in front of an impatient, famished table until 8:30 because I kinda’ forgot to slice the beef until the girls returned home from dance.
However, grace (i.e. rescue) came in the form of Emma’s from-scratch Oreo cupcakes, thoughtfully and lovingly made for a sibling whose legacy of giving her nothing but big-brother crap is now in its 13th season.
Karry placed a candle atop a cupcake, Emma turned out the lights, and I nearly ruined everything by going for harmony on the final Happy Birthday To You (a sweet, but ill-executed homage to my Dad’s birthday serenades of yore).
Then the room fell quiet, and the world stopped long enough for the guest of honor to take his sweet time in considering his birthday wish.
And in the silence, I wondered what the Dad who used to send postcards promising to put kisses in his hand for his sleeping baby boy might say to the one now sitting around a cluttered Tuesday night table staring, bewildered, at a newly-minted 17-year-old whose heart’s set on a Ford Mustang.
I recently found myself feeling very thankful … for, of all things, a summer Sunday thunderstorm.
That happened about 32 years ago.
I remember it as one of those glorious, near-Biblical downpours – the kind that mid-summer, Southwestern PA humidity teases and taunts until it comes down full-throated and angry. The kind whose sound used to mesmerize me as it drumrolled, fortissimo, the aluminum awning on our tiny front porch, pouring in a sheet over its edge.
I remember that particular afternoon storm being accompanied by lightning that flashed with such frequency and bad intent it made you involuntarily wince as you waited the couple beats to learn from the companion thunder crack if any trees or transformers had born the brunt.
It was mid-afternoon and Mom was getting an early dinner ready. We were to eat early because Dad was playing music that night.
On the surface, an every-third-Sunday-night gig at a Moose Club in Perryopolis may sound more like punishment than anything, but Dad loved that particular job. It had absolutely nothing to do with the money, as once each of the nine pieces of the orchestra had been paid, the cut was a measly $25 for three hours. Nah, for Dad, the payoff was in the freedom the band had on those Sunday nights. Things were looser at the Moose than the typical gigs — the opposite of the structured, 14-setters that dictated what kind of song had to be played when. On those Sundays, Sam, the bandleader, would even let the musicians request a chart that they wanted to play, or hadn’t played in a long time … or a jazzier chart that was more fun to jam on than to dance to. And playing from 8:30-11:30 a short drive down Route 51 was a breeze compared to the four-hour jobs they’d drive an hour or more to.
As Mom got things ready in the kitchen, I remember the phone ringing in the dining room, and me getting up to answer it (days before caller ID when a surprise always waited on the other end). It was Sam, calling to let Dad know that the Moose had lost power due to the storm, so the gig was cancelled.
I relayed the message, and remember Dad being bummed, but also being OK with not having to rush the rest of the afternoon, and getting his evening back.
Though there was no longer any reason to eat early, Mom finished what she’d started, and the three of us sat down to eat at the kitchen table.
That’s when the phone rang a second time, about 45 minutes after the first call.
This time Dad answered. It was Sam again, calling to let him know that the Moose got power back, so the dance was back on.
So, Dad resumed his gig-prep ritual, getting a shower, doing his teeth (which took a good 30-45 minutes. I’m not sure there was ever a trumpet player more meticulous about his teeth), laying out his suit, his mute bag, etc.
No big deal.
Until the phone rang for a third time. Sam again.
He’d been able to reach everyone in the band … except the drummer, Bob, who also happened to be my drum teacher. In the age before cel phones, when answering machines were still a novelty, you either got ahold of someone, or you didn’t. Sam figured that Bob must’ve gone out to eat or something after learning that the gig was off.
“Tell Pete to get ready, just in case Bob doesn’t call me back,” Sam told my Dad.
Now, this was suddenly a big deal.
So, I was 15 years old. I’d been taking drum lessons for about a year and a half at my father’s, um, insistence. I literally came home from school one day to learn that he’d signed me up for lessons. I had never previously expressed an interest in the drums. And there was no precedent for my father signing me up for anything that we hadn’t previously discussed. But I was an agreeable kid, and, hey, drums were cool, so I just rolled with it.
I didn’t pay much attention to the not-so-subtle clues as to my Dad’s intentions. When he signed me up for lessons he informed me that he’d already pre-arranged with the instructor (Bob) that I was to learn all styles of music, not just rock. He wanted me versed in the bossanova, the rhumba, the cha-cha, and of course, jazz and swing.
I humored my Dad by going along with this, though my heart beat more in time to big, fat backbeats.
My Dad had started having me tag along on gigs with him, just to listen. I remember at first feeling awkward riding to gigs with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, and then sipping Pepsis for four hours while listening to old music and watching old people dance. He’d also asked Sam to make me some tapes of the band for me (which he recorded ‘live’ on an old Radio Shack Realistic recorder), so I could play along at home, applying the beats I was learning in my lessons. Full disclosure: I’d always skip past the boring slow ones, and just played along to the passable jump tunes … In the Mood, Kansas City, etc.
But I always assumed that the tapes and the ride-alongs were just for exposure, and really, to humor my Dad.
The prospect of playing an actual gig was not even close to being on my radar when Sam called that Sunday afternoon. For one thing, my drums had never left my practice room in the back. I didn’t even have cases for them. And since Dad-slash-Santa had delivered them already set up a couple Christmases back, I didn’t know how to tear them down.
I remember taking them apart that afternoon for the first time afraid I wouldn’t remember how they went back together. When I wasn’t freaking out, I was praying hard that Sam would call back saying he’d gotten ahold of Bob. Alas, a fourth call never came.
The rain had long since stopped by the time Mac came to pick us up. I remember carrying my cymbal stands out one by one, gingerly laying them down in the back of his Chevy Suburban, and covering them with a blanket so they wouldn’t be tempted to roll.
When we were done loading the truck, Mac commented, “They look like dead bodies.”
Not the encouragement I was looking for.
When we got to the Moose, Dad helped me set things back up, bought me a Pepsi to calm my nerves. Sam loaned me an oversized tux jacket, and a gratuitously large, velvet, clip-on black bow tie that wore crooked.
A veteran professional band leader who had logged decades as a successful high school band instructor, Sam was his usual picture of calm. I’ll never forget his only instruction to me, which he delivered with a wry smile: “As long as you begin and end with the rest of the band, you’ll be fine.”
By the time everybody tuned up and gathered on the bandstand, I was in full panic. I gave my full attention to Sam’s every word and gesture, locking into the tempos as he counted off the tunes. From there, I focused on Ralph, the keyboard player (and Sam’s son). Specifically, I hyper-focused on Ralph’s left hand, which he used to play the bass line. After a couple verses, I’d turn my attention back to Sam and wait for him to signal whether the song ended in tempo, if things slowed down, or if everyone was to play the last notes together.
To compensate for all the tunes I didn’t know (which were legion), I’d exhaust my humble bag of tricks on the few that I did, “In the Mood,” “Kansas City,” etc. Imagine a nervous, 15-year-old rock-and-roller turned loose on Glenn Miller. Yeah.
For the others, it was a lot of ‘boom-chicka-boom’ until a tune came to a merciful conclusion. I found myself regretting skipping over all of those boring, slow tunes in the practice room.
I remember little else other than surviving the longest three hours of my life … thanks to a constant stream of advice and encouragement from Alice (our singer) and the guys in the band.
When it was over, I gratefully collected their smiles and handshakes, and then collected myself before turning my full attention to trying to remember how the heck to tear my drums back down.
Then Sam came over to me. Asked me to put out my hand.
Into which he put $25 … my share of the evening’s take.
I still can vividly recall my 15-year-old self’s feeling of surprise and exhilaration as I stared at the money in my hand. It felt like a million bucks to me.
In that humble transaction, I went from being a scared-shi*tless 15-year-old to being a professional musician.
But that paled in comparison to what he did next.
He asked me if I’d consider being his regular drummer.
He said he was looking for someone who could make all the gigs. Bob sometimes played with other groups, forcing Sam to find subs. He wanted someone steady.
I can tell you with 100% certainty that there was nothing in my performance that evening that earned me the invitation.
But I never gave him a chance to reconsider his offer.
And, for the next 13 years, I rode along in vans with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, playing old music for old people.
And loving every single minute of it.
The long drives to the gigs, listening to my Dad and his musician friends talk music and tell tales of guys they played with and places they played.
Seeing it as my honor, as one of the younger guys, to help carry the equipment up and down the steps of whatever hall we happened to be playing in.
Over time, learning every chart inside and out … not just beginning and ending with the band, but catching every kick and squeezing the juice out of every chart. Laying down a mean rhumba, cha-cha and bossanova for the dancers to indulge themselves.
Delighting in the ritual and routine of it all. The rhythm of the set up and tear down. The meticulous way everything perfectly loaded and packed into Mac and Sam’s vans. The way each musician would warm up (I can still hear Mac playing the Theme from the Godfather every time he pulled his alto from his case). Which halls had the best food. Losing myself in Dad’s trumpet solos.
And, to this day, you could quiz me on the #s of the charts in Sam’s book. “Love” by Nat King Cole? #252. “Two-o’ Clock Jump” by Harry James? #320. Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”? #143. “Cherry Pink”? #125. “Begin the Beguine?” 95.
All of it.
And I hope that, somewhere over the course of the 13 years that followed, that I became deserving of the faith and investment Sam placed in a nervous 15-year-old who didn’t know his Artie Shaw from his Cole Porter.
And for the record, I still have the $20 bill that Sam put in my hand after that first gig. (I recall allowing myself to spend the fiver at the county fair a couple days after the gig.)
A couple weeks ago I heard the news that Sammy Bill passed away at age 89.
My deepest condolences to his son Ralph, with whom I also had the (absolute) pleasure of sharing a bandstand with for many of those years.
Sam was never anything but good to me the entire time I held down his drum chair. Thanks to him, I got to fulfill my Dad’s dream of sharing a bandstand with his son. To this day, it remains one of my greatest joys in life.
I’m just one of probably over a thousand young musicians whose lives Sam enriched through his love and gift of music.
So, for that summer Sunday thunderstorm from 32 years ago …