Thursday, April 30, 2009

Let There be Music

While I wrote about old friends in last week’s column, fellow Star Courier writers Mike Berry and Rocky Stufflebeam both touched on another interesting subject: Old music.
It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, because I was there.
And so were they.
There was an active live music scene going on in the area back in the 60’s, fueled, mostly, by the “British Invasion” of rock bands like the Beatles, Yardbirds and Rolling Stones, and reflected in the sudden popularity of US bands that included the Beach Boys, the Byrds and a whole host of others. Kewanee and its surrounding towns suddenly became a hotbed of garage bands made up of young guys (mostly) who dreamed of making it as musicians or, at least, of getting some girls to talk to them.
I first got my hands on a guitar when my brother and sister both started playing instruments while in college in response to the folk music craze that swept college campuses in the late 50’s/early 60’s. I was a “folkie” myself at first, but switched my musical allegiance approximately 7 seconds after I heard the Beatles play “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” on the Ed Sullivan Show. By the summer of 1966, I was an aspiring rock singer/guitarist looking for a place to be. At the same time, Mike and Rocky were doing similar things. Mike had a great musical pedigree. His dad was a well-known area musician, while both he and his cousins, Dennis and Gene, were musical up-and-comers who were both admired and envied because they seemed to actually know how to play their instruments beyond the basic three-chord progressions most of us relied on. I was cruising Kewanee with some friends, when we made a stop at a garage on Tenney Street. The four-piece band rehearsing inside consisted of a lead singer, a drummer, a bass player, and a curly-haired lead guitarist named Rocky (I’ve omitted the other guys’ names in case they’d rather forget about that chapter in their lives.) Sensing a golden opportunity, I wangled a chance to sit in and displayed my abilities as both a player and singer with an enthusiastic rendition of a mostly forgotten song called “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” written by Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers and made famous that summer by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. By the end of the song, I was led to believe that I was in, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Well, maybe not history, per se, since probably no one but Rocky and me and the other guys in the band remember much of it. But it was, nonetheless, a crowning moment in what remains a fond memory.
Those early days were not without challenges, however. For one thing, I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, so I had to rely on friends and, often, my parents to get to and from rehearsals and playing jobs. I was kind of surprised at how supportive my parents were with the whole thing, as they ferried me back and forth from Galva to Kewanee. It was not until I became a parent myself that I realized they would have probably done anything to get me, my electric guitar, and those damnable three-chord songs out of their house and into anyone else’s garage or basement.
A steady place to practice was a bit of a problem, too, as parents would get tired of our clutter, noise and friends and send us packing. We finally settled in at a small backyard shed that the bass player’s dad had built to house the chinchilla ranch that was going to make him wealthy. The furry money-makers were long gone, so we moved into the tiny structure and began to make noise in earnest.
The quality of that noise was pretty mixed and fancy, both because of an inconsistent talent level and the equipment we played. I admired Rocky’s gear, which included a Swedish-made Hagstrom guitar and a piggyback Sears Silvertone amp, both of which would probably be worth something today if he still had them. I was never able to afford one of the fine American electric guitars with names like Fender or Gibson, so I had a series of inexpensive knockoff brands that were hard to play and sounded worst. My amps were generally underpowered, undependable no-name models until I obtained, for the princely sum of fifty dollars, an aged Fender Tremolux amp that I still own and is worth a pretty penny indeed, despite some serious cosmetic issues that existed when I bought it that made it look like it had been used as an ashtray right before it was dragged behind a car.
Though my memory may have shined things up a bit, I seem to remember that we eventually got pretty good. We played a lot, getting jobs at school and church dances and other places. We had a decent repertoire of songs that included hits from the WLS Silver Dollar Survey and a few more esoteric tunes that we liked.
Eventually, work and college brought it all to an end, though I’ve continued to play a lot of music for a lot of people in a lot of places over the years, leaving me the only working musician among that original bunch of guys. We didn't get rich and famous. Not surprising, as reflected in an old question-and-answer joke that goes like this:
Q. How do you make a million dollars as a musician?
A. Start with two million.
And I guess that’s so.
But the lessons I learned playing in that first band have lasted me a lifetime. I learned about things like confidence, cooperation, hard work and determination.
And, most important, I learned how to dream.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Old Friends

I had one of those wonderful weeks when old friends kept popping back into my life. First, I got a call from a person who is, perhaps, my oldest friend. She and I were next-door playmates as kids--like over 50 years ago--and have managed to keep the relationship alive and kicking ever since, despite the fact her family moved to California in the early 60’s. She and her husband have ties back here in the area, so she’s been a frequent visitor, but that’s no explanation for the fact that it’s kind of like we’re constantly in the midst of a conversation that’s gone on all these years. It picks up where it left off whenever we speak and will, I think, go on forever.
But the call from my west coast friend wasn’t the only blast from my past this week.
Saturday morning, we embarked on a quick road trip to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Mt. Pleasant is the home of Iowa Wesleyan College. I graduated from IWC back in the day, and still remain in contact with a few classmates. The purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the birthdays of a few of my old mates. A general topic of conversation was specifically about the “old” part.
Remember, we’re from the “never trust anybody over 30” generation, so approaching three score is rather chilling. Funny thing is, though, that we still consider ourselves to be pretty young. Pretty lively, even, I think. I’m more than a little embarrassed now when I think of how decrepit I felt my parents were when they were my age.
So how is it that I’ve managed to hold onto these friends of mine?
It’s not out of any kind of constant contact, as we sometimes go years without any conversations at all. We’ve never used social networking internet sites like Facebook, Friendster or MySpace to stay in touch, nor have we even done much emailing or even good, old-fashioned letter writing. But the bond--and the friendship--remain.
There are two guys and their wives, in particular, that we’ve stayed close to ever since college days. We’ve all clicked--guys and wives alike--and have spent time over the years doing things together now and then. There have been adventures, like the houseboat trips we used to take on the upper Mississippi, but more important have been the quieter times we’ve spent sharing thoughts, ideas, laughs and dreams as we’ve each built careers and families.
Suddenly, we’ve gone from being college guys with nary a clue to a social worker/psychologist, a businessman and IT professional and a writer. We are husbands and fathers. One of us (that’s me) is a grandfather, with another due to enter that happy state in the next month or two. We are honest-to-goodness, real-life grownups.
And we’re still friends.
I looked for a quote that would do a better job than I can do of expressing the value of these old friends. I found a couple:

“Good old friends are like stars. You don't always see them, but you know they are always there”


“The most beautiful discovery true friends make is that they can grow separately without growing apart.”

Thanks, friends.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Early Spring

We got back late Sunday night after a week spent with our younger son and his family in North Carolina. It was a great visit, featuring a lot of quality time with Patrick, Susan, Cyrus and young John, who decided his grandparents’ visit would be a good time to start walking in earnest. Though they’ve had a cooler spring than normal, it warmed up so we were able to enjoy a couple of trips to the beach, along with our usual sampling of the area’s excellent seafood along the shore.
And I got to wear my shorts.
Not that the sight of my winter-white legs was a special treat for anyone else, but I was more than glad to finally get to put on something other than winter clothing.
Then we came home.
Back to cold, wet weather and my dazzling collection of sweatshirts, sweaters and rain gear. Home from green grass, trees in full bloom and flowers bursting all around, to the sight of Star Courier shorts-wearing fashion leaders Rocky Stufflebeam and Mike Landis staring gloomily at the weather report.
Spring has, indeed, taken its own sweet time about coming around this year. And maybe that’s OK, because once it does, maybe it will stick around for good.

An Early Spring

An early spring is a wonderful thing
With grass turned green and birds that sing
I feel I can do anything,
When there’s an early spring.

My spirits start to readjust
Springtime things shake off their dust
And out-of-doors becomes a must
When there’s an early spring.

We find out what the snow has hid
And rake and pile and trim and rid
Our yards of all that winter did
When there’s an early spring.

From deep below, there comes a surge
As flowers from their rest emerge
And burst forth in a gaudy splurge
When there’s an early spring.

But here’s the thing, a springtime warning
You may wake up some early morning
To find the season is in mourning
When there’s an early spring

Winter hates to lose its grip
And likes to really let it rip
With snowy, blowy winds that whip
When there’s an early spring.

That’s when that season is the worst
And seems so evil and perverse
I swear I heard a robin curse
When there’s an early spring

But spring will finally win the fray
The April sun will have its way
And bring to us a glorious day
When there’s an early spring

The wonder of the springtime dance
As warms winds whisper of romance
God’s given us another chance
When there’s an early spring.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Notes from a Road Warrior

Cue the music.
It’s my feeling you might enjoy this column more if you read it to music. Something like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” or even “Wagon Wheel,” by Bob Dylan.
Got it going? Then read on, because, after a three-month stay-at-home period, we are, indeed, on the road.
We hadn’t seen any of our kids or grandkids since Christmas, so it’s been a long, winter’s wait. But with Easter break upon us, there was no doubt we were going to visit someone. But who?
Well, let’s see. Younger son, Patrick, lives in North Carolina, where spring has sprung and our newest grandson was waiting to amaze us with all the things he’s learned to do since we saw him last.
Bad dad that I am, I just couldn’t bring myself to go a-sandbagging with older son Colin, who lives with his family in Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the raging Red River from Fargo. I think that trip ought to wait for the full arrival of spring in the great northern plains. From what the natives say, that should be somewhere around the Fourth of July.
So the plan was made to head for Eastern North Carolina as soon as school was out last Friday afternoon. I was pretty sure that was unlikely to happen, but years of marriage have taught me it’s better to remain silent and wait for reality to occur. All last week, I maintained a checklist of “things to do before we go,” that I kept on the kitchen table.
“That’s quite a daunting list you’ve got there,” she said.
“Yes,” I said bravely. “Yes, it is.”
Finally about Thursday, with the list down to a few things that absolutely required both of us to be involved, she acquiesced.
“There’s really no way we’re getting out of here on Friday, is there?”
“No,” I said sagely. “No, there’s not.”
Instead, we ran errands, did laundry and packed bags, remembering as we did that, while we were driving to North Carolina, we were leaving a vehicle and flying back. So we had to travel light.
After a few hours of sleep, we got up very, very, very early on Saturday morning and hit the road. This was not to be one of the meandering, fact-and-fun-filled drives I treasure. There would be no detours for a look at the Indiana Earthworm Museum or the World’s Biggest Hairball in Luck Tree, Ohio. Instead, the plan was to stick to the interstates and go full speed ahead. We took the northern route, that travels through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia, before entering the Tarheel state near Mount Airy, the town favorite son Andy Griffith used as his model for Mayberry.
“We’re making great time, aren’t we?” she said brightly.
“Yes,” I said cautiously. “We are.”
“I bet we could just drive straight through instead of stopping for the night,” she continued
Not quite what I had in mind, but, again, those years of marriage--and travel together--have taught me that a reasonable night’s sleep, a hotel hot tub and that free breakfast they’re always talking about were not in the cards. Instead, it would be a late-late-night drive, with the main goal being to get to that grandbaby as soon as possible. I knew, then, that I was paying for that no-go Friday.
“Really,” she said. “I’ll drive, too.”
A few minutes later, the reality of that offer came to light, as she spoke to me in that special language we often share late at night, the language called “Sleeplish.”
Me: “Did that sign say route 70 turns left?”
She: “Whxxx? Nfngrx rfng ylp.”
But we finally made it at about 3 a.m. Son Patrick and his amazingly gracious wife, Susan, woke up as we crept into the house, welcoming us and showing us our digs in the guest room/baby room occupied by grandson John. He woke up briefly, then fell back asleep as we settled in, A little later, he woke up again and, seeing us in the bed across the room, decided it was time to play. We, of course, agreed.
Dawn broke as John Sloan--my grandson and namesake--and I dozed off together. Believing as I do, that every encounter should be a learning experience, I began to teach the little fellow how to snore.
Life is good. Live from North Carolina.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Praise the Lord, and Pass the...Gravy

Thank God for churches.
That’s kind of an understatement, I know, but besides the many ways these houses of of worship can feed our souls, there’s another way they, and any number of other organizations, schools and other groups, can feed us.
Like literally.
The woman in my life is a great cook, but she’s just plain busy most of the time. And once she’s home for the evening, chances are, I’m off covering a sporting event, which really reduces the incentive for whipping up some gastronomic delight that’ll be cold by the time I get home. And while I might have more time some days, my “let’s throw something frozen into the crockpot with a can of cream of mushroom soup and see what happens” approach to entrees has worn a little thin. Besides, most of those recipes are on the “10 Most Unwanted list,” according to the American Heart Association and other health authorities.
Actually, we manage pretty well most of the time, with both of us relying on a fairly healthy catch-as-catch-can diet. But sometimes, I get a hankering for some old fashioned home cooking...the kind that contains equal parts of calories, carbohydrates and love. Kinda like mom used to make before moms got too busy to cook or, even worse, went on a diet.
That’s where the aforementioned churches and other groups come in, because the church supper (or breakfast or luncheon) is truly where it’s at.
We recently went to a production of “Church Basement Ladies” at Circa 21, which is a delightful musical comedy set in--you guessed it--a church basement. The theme of the play has to do with the events surrounding the never-ending task of churning out meals for the wide variety of fundraisers, seasonal dinners, weddings and funerals that the church hosts.
Watching it, I suddenly realized that, if you pay attention, there’s no lack of opportunities to take advantage of this hallmark of American cookery. Walk into a church basement or hall on the right day and the right time, and your senses will be suddenly turned topsy-turvy with a bountiful barrage of sensuous scents.
Put more simply, it smells darn good in those church halls when they’ve got something cooking in the kitchen.
Pancakes and sausage.
Homemade casseroles and jello salad.
Baked ham and scalloped potatoes.
Soups and stews lovingly made from scratch.
Pies and cakes and cookies of every description.
These are some of the staples of church food, though I admit, I have my favorites, like the late, lamented corn beef and cabbage feed at the Kewanee Knights of Columbus and the Friday night Visitation fish fry. Or the supreme carryout, the ham loaves put together at Grace United Methodist Church in Galva. Though I guess soup and bread is meant to be some kind of sacrifice for the season, I’m more than fond of the lenten soup suppers we have at my own church, St. John’s in Galva. It’s hard to beat the combination of somebody’s favorite soup recipe along with a veritable bake-off of fresh-baked bread. A side benefit for us is that anytime it’s our turn to provide the soup/bread combo, we always overestimate how much is needed, resulting in a few day’s worth of good eats at home, too.
The company at all these gatherings is pretty good, too. I especially like the way those church ladies always seem to insist I double up on dessert.
Ahhh...dessert. That’s yet another highlight of those meals I love. Imagine choosing between three or four different kinds of pie. Or imagine not choosing at all, but trying each and every one of them. And while we’re talking sweet tooths, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Galva’s top two seasonal treats: Messiah Lutheran’s spritz cookies at Christmastime (I always buy an extra box as my personal stash) and the First United Methodist hand-made chocolate Easter eggs (today’s the still my heart.)
So here’s the deal. If I could just find the time and organizational skills to get on the full-time meal circuit, I’d probably be a happier guy, though somewhat larger, as well. Not long ago, we scored a “2-fer,” as we enjoyed pancakes at one church in the morning, then soup, bread and dessert at another that evening. But I’m holding out for the ultimate...a veritable trifecta of overindulgence...breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one day, at three different places. It’ll probably never happen, but, hey, you gotta have faith.
After all, it’s church.