404. Born to be Mild

Joel has been on the lam for the past three weeks or so. Could be a month. It’s been a social and intellectual drought in his absence. However, time is sketchy. At our age time is measured in sinus infections and colonoscopies. The sky won’t rain; the chickens won’t lay; and the cows will not come home. I don’t really want the cows to come home, mind you, but that leads right into one of Joel’s favorite movies, City Slickers.Image result for city slickers 1 pictures

If you recall, several rather impotent midlife crisis New York men go out west to a real working ranch to find and flex their manhood. Despite many challenges and setbacks, Billy Crystal transforms from some sort of fragile wimpy dud Dad insurance salesman into a true cowboy hero. He brings in the herd after the real cowboy leader (Jack Palance) dies. Crystal observes, “What did you expect?  He ate bacon three meals a day.” Let this be a warning to you lard inhaling bacon lovers. Do you want this epithet on your tombstone? “Killed by nitrates seared in salty pork fat.”Image result for city slickers 1 pictures

Similarly noted in Coffee Nation, “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” That virile (or is it viral?) spirit led our mild mannered Joel out of Turtle Town onto a world class motorcycle trip into the Ozarks with several other biker dudes from around the world. You see, he recently purchased a three wheeled Spyder motorcycle, which is worthy of much envy. But our local roads could not contain nor constrain his Steppenwolf heart that beats beneath a sharp new leather vest, bursting with high test testosterone.Image result for steppenwolf band pictures

“Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway

Lookin for adventure and whatever comes our way

Yeah Darlin’, go make it happen Take the world in a love embrace

Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space.

I like smoke and lightning  heavy metal thunder

Racin’ with the wind and this feelin’ that I’m under

Yeah Darlin’, go make it happen  Take the world in a love embrace

Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space.

Like a true nature’s child  we were born, born to be mild

We can climb so high  never want to die.

Born to be mild.”

Before he left for his journey, I managed to wheedle him into a napkin will, where it was clearly stated in his inky hand, that in the event of his untimely death on the Tail of the Dragon trail, I would receive the Spyder, if it survived unscathed. I had the napkin notarized by Shirley, who calls me various men’s names and occasionally gets the right one. I was torn, however, between wanting to hear Joel’s road warrior tales and driving my new Spyder cycle. Come on, you would too.Image result for spyder motorcycles images

So, Joel has returned intact with a certain swagger that comes from deep immersion in the hot springs of masculinity. His jaw seems more square and his posture post modern, beyond framing. He announced in  his purple checked shirt that he had to leave for a meeting in Shippensburg, and thus he could not attend Coffee Nation. Wow! Just Wow! We moved out to the noisy sidewalk to do our suddenly less important business, but Peter Fonda’s stunt double remained inside, finishing something epic on his Ipad.  Eventually he emerged and put on that leather vest, a funky helmet and away he road on that Spyder, like Harry Potter… into a world we mortals could only imagine.Image result for pictures of faces of abandonment

I was left without any tales of Brave Joelysses or my much coveted Spyder cycle. I felt robbed twice, as if someone stole my wallet from the guy who stole my wallet. It hurt in an abstract sort of way if you thought about it long enough. Somewhere Shakespeare’s lines on mercy seemed reversed–

“Envy is twice cursed. Like gasoline stinks on the pumper and the pumped.

It curses he who covets and he who is immersed.

Leaving both as empty as a wheel barrow dumped.”Image result for gas pump picturesUnlike Billy Crystal Joel did not return with a calf named Norman. That would have been special, by Golly. Norman on the back seat roaring through Turtle Town.Image result for cow on a motorcycle picturesBut he did return with a huge mildewed heart. Being mild is okay, my blog warts. It allows for a comfortable move forward, while remaining grounded, safe, and homogenous. The highest state of mild is “to become the dew of mildness, also known as mildew.” Wild is for crazy risk takers who don’t wear helmets. In salsa sales mild is by far the leader, not medium or hot. Know why? You can always increase the kick of mild, but you cannot unwild the hot stuff. A jalapeno without a fever is a fake pepper and will never become a gastronomical dictator.

And that is Joel. For sixty some years he has been building up to this zippiness. Aging well like old amontillado wine. He is enjoying life uncorked now since accepting Social Security and AARP benefits. Rockin it, too.Image result for amontilladoAnd I am trying really hard not to be envious, but I am failing miserably. He has taken on mythic stature in his semi-demi-god retirement. Image result for zeus on a harley davidson images Could it be that the Sermon on the Mount passed over the mild because their inheritance was too materialistic?  “Blessed are the mild, for they shall inherit the cool cycle, hang with Motor head dudes, tame the Dragon Trail in the Ozarks, and walk as giants among measly mortals.”

Image result for walter mitty imagesTom Petty told us “If you never slow down, you never grow old”, which is a nice lyric but a very hard trick to pull off into your seventies and eighties.

In any event… I guess it’s okay to have Joel back on his Spyder. He’s the man, the myth, a giant among dwarves. All the men of Coffee Nation stood a little taller that day as he gunned the Spyder and whirled away dervishly.

“You’re a savage gift on a wayward bus,

But you stepped down and you sang to us.”

So Joan Baez glorified Bob Dylan, and so we salute you, Joel. Born to be mild.

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310. Tragic Muscle Head Cars

My blog post numbers are getting up near the high horsepower engine range. It is just a natural association for me to recall that 327 CID was a Chevy engine, though I am no motor head.  There was a Ford 302. Chevy also had a 350, 396, and 427.  I just know that they were powerful and fast, too fast for the teenagers who tried to drive them. Which is perhaps symbolic of how woefully unprepared some adolescent males are to maneuver through the twisting course of adult life.

Where to begin?  Charlie Young drove a Camaro Z28 when we were all teenagers. I have no idea where he got the money to even buy the gas, though it was cheap in the early 1970’s. It was a sweet car to be sure, green base with wide white racing stripes. A shrine to the young male ego, sporting  slotted mags, a Hurst shifter, slick spoiler on the back, and fat tires. Yeah. Charlie posed in it like Clint Eastwood on a racehorse. Cool squint and a John Travolta smile.

There was talk of races behind the high school and big talk about how fast this car was or how fast that guy shifted gears. I don’t recall how Charlie fared in these much heralded races. I just recall that the Z28 went away one day, and not into a museum. He got married early and moved into a travel trailer parked in his parents’ side yard. The last I heard about Charlie was that he was working for the sheriff’s department back home transporting prisoners. Someone told me that one of the prisoners persuaded Charlie to stop at a liquor store during the trip to jail for one last good time. Good Time Charlie obliged and got drunk too; the prisoner escaped; Charlie was fired. The funny part is that there is no surprise here. It just got away from him like the Z28 did years before.

Let’s go up a few cubic inches. I believe Glenn Barret’s Nova SS had a 307 or a 350. I used to know these things like baseball players’ batting averages. Glenn’s car was red and black, manual transmission. He was constantly cleaning or waxing it, posing with the door open. He had this cool rolling start he liked to pull where he’d start the car just by popping the clutch. Cool cubed, man. He’d silently cruise into a parking space with the engine off or drift down a grade noiselessly and then pop that clutch. VRRRoooom!!

One day he was parked on the incline in front of Bobby Doering’s house, door open, coolness spilling out of his car like chilled air conditioning. He was all set to do the silent back out, but this time he forgot to close his door. As he glided back down the hill, his driver side door caught the fire hydrant he had neglected to account for. The interaction ripped his door out away from the frame of the car like an airplane wing.  Now this would upset any driver of any car, but factor back in that Glenn worshipped this Nova SS. It was his first love, his status symbol, his everything. Like Barry White sang,

“I know there’s only, only one like you
There’s no way they could have made two
Girl, you’re my reality, but I’m lost in a dream
You’re the first, you’re the last, my everything ”

He married young and took up golf. Not sure how either of those endeavors turned out.

Then there is the king of foolishness, the late Bobby Doering. He moved from Oklahoma in his junior year of high school. He could talk and bluster and brag with a western cockiness that was infectious and charming. He was famous for sayings like, “That sounds like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

Bobby had a couple of cute sisters, plus his dad had a Porsche that we drove around when we cut school. What more could a 17 year old need? He also played ice hockey when that was unheard of in our experience. What more? How about a  forest green Chevelle SS 396 with boss wheels and dual exhaust? One of the coolest cars ever.

 Bobby lacked common sense and a healthy fear of death or injury. He’d smoke the tires with no provocation whatsoever. I imagine there is great pressure to blow out the four barrel carburetor when you have one, just like the pressure to drive your dad’s Porsche 135 miles an hour on the Beltway while skipping school and listening to the Stones “Under My Thumb”.

Bobby was keen on my girlfriend’s girlfriend Lisa, who was 15 then, I think. Lisa’s parents weren’t too keen on Bobby being around Lisa, for obvious reasons.  However, on Halloween of that year Bobby was driving both girls around the neighborhood  in the SS 396 when he decided to gun the engine and smoke tires. He did and lost control of the green monster, dumping it into a deep ravine to his left. He and both girls fell forward as the Chevelle went 90 degrees into the concrete culvert. I forget the physical damage done. Everyone received injuries as no one wore their seatbelt. Bobby was bankrupted. The car was totaled but the loan against it was not. He had to get a job and work off the debts he’d accumulated while  worshipping at the shrine of the 396.

I don’t know when, but through the grapevine I learned that he died a couple of years later, maybe while playing hockey. Cardiac arrest. Rest in peace, bro, like Dick Clark– forever a teenager.

I don’t recall the CID of Mike Dean’s Charger or Challenger. It’s too far back there. It was a big muscle car, I do know. He hung out in the same neighborhood of Wilton Woods, where there were plenty of cute girls. Mike’s car was not the problem, though. The story is murky, but as I heard it he blew his brains out with a gun after this girlfriend dumped him. Too much power in the hands of boys wanting to be great.

Tragedies are poignant because they did not have to happen. Some character flaw or bizarre circumstance destroys a good manboy. Yeah, well let me finish by directing you to Tom Waits’ “Big Joe and Phantom 309”, a lovely old ballad with a tragic seed.

 

171. Adolessons 2

I recall a night in mid-May of 1975. I had just gotten home from my first year of college. My buddies came by and we drank some beer and perhaps smoked some pot. It was a long time ago. All these things were legal then if you were under the influence of adolescence. There was Craver, Tim Gulley, Gerard Windt, my older brother Steve, and me. Craver and Gulley were big boys– 250 each; “G” was like a piece of shoelace licorice; and my brother and I were average size 20 and 19 year olds. Anyhow, we wound up at Craver’s kitchen table, blathering and joking, and we were looking for some adventure. Gulley was blathering on about his father and how he worked at the White House. I challenged his b.s. He called the White House and handed me the phone. “Good evening, this is the White House. How may I help you?” said the very adult voice on the other end. I hung up. “I hope they don’t trace prank calls”, was my lame reply to Gulley. I wouldn’t want Mark’s dad, Colonel Craver, to get that follow up phone call.

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“Uh huh, they did what? Why that’s un-American. I’ll take care of it with my Ranger-trained hands.” He served much too long in Vietnam, and the country changed on him while he was deployed. That’s another blog post.

I suppose the conversation moved on to our girlfriends. Somehow I mentioned that mine was stuck at college in Richmond till her mother could drive down and fetch her on the weekend. Gulley, ever grandiose and seeking universal approval, offered that we all pile in his Volkswagen and drive to Richmond and bring her back immediately. “Gulley, there are five of us going down in a VW Beetle. One of us would have to get out and hitchhike back.”

“No, we’ll squeeze in on the way back.”

The funny thing about substances is how they can make what is clearly impossible seem viable. We piled into his Beetle. It was tight. Gulley was over-excited and did a very Gulley thing: he punched his windshield and made a fist-sized spider web appear. Now usually such a bad omen would make an audience reconsider what’s up. Nope. We just headed down the road in the dark. Luminescence became pleasantly kaleidoscopic as we passed streetlights and other vehicles.

Now a careful reader might ask at this juncture, “Don’t you ever learn?” I mean there was the broken foot while skipping school; the mangled deer with the headlights out; the somnambulance ride to Ocean City; not to mention the ticket Sam got when three of us rode on the hood of his Falcon to keep it from bottoming out on a back road in Fauquier County, and a local sheriff couldn’t see the wisdom of that move.( Another pile of guys had decided to go camping in the middle of another bored summer night.) And the answer is an unequivocal “NO”.

Our first destination was the 7-11 store for more beer. Strangely, we thought, they stopped selling beer at 2:00 a.m. We could not figure that one out. Again, another bad omen, but we forged onward, down 95 to Richmond.

It must have been 4:00 a.m. when we arrived, unannounced and strolled right into Johnson Hall, the dorm I lived in as well as my girlfriend Sara. I think after brief introductions we all slept on the floor of her dorm room, or maybe it was mine. In any event the sun came up soon after and the alcohol’s effects were worn off. What seemed gloriously fun and cool and inimitable the night before looked like a dirty Volkswagen with a broken windshield in the pale morning light. Reality was like a flea in our sleeping bag. How to squeeze six people into an overcrowded VW? Sara had to go in the back seat, and though her weight was welcome at first, after an hour it was painful and then numbing over the final hour as the sun heated up and the engine whined under the strain of 1,000 pounds of human cargo. If nothing else, my respect for clown car passengers in the circus grew immensely on that morning. It was wisdom born from pain.

Back at my house, where the saga had begun twelve hours earlier, the VW disgorged its occupants. Normalcy returned in the daylight. And here’s the odd thing: normalcy is forgettable. The mundane is not memorable. Just ask a tollbooth worker what moments were memorable in his/her career. Was it the 12 millionth suit and briefcase or the nude woman with a pet zebra in the back seat who whispered ala Marilyn Monroe, “This is my birthday zoot suit” ? That’s not a fair question, I realize this.

Those days were thirty eight years ago. Gerard lives in San Francisco now and has an awesome life according to his Christmas card letters. The last time I saw Gulley he picked me up hitchhiking on the way to California in 1978. Craver died in 2004. In 1979 I married the only girl in the VW, and my brother Steve is still her brother-in-law.

What to make of these adolescent lessons, because logical outcomes and life altering wisdom are not the only lessons we gather in life. Life rushes out of us, even on boring summer nights that seem to lack meaning and purpose. Some heavily potentiated moments gel into little gemstones that we bury in the subsoil of our consciousness. Somehow these stem cell moments achieve critical mass and arc into the idealized timelessness of nostalgia. And that has to count for something despite the mixing of metaphors.

170. Adolessons 1

Blazing blognacity! Humor, like fireworks, should only be handled by professionals. Even then, someone may lose a finger or an eye due to a tragic mishap. Nor should adolescent males be left unsupervised…ever. Many a full grown man is today hobbling around due to some foolish stunt he pulled as a teenager. Some have scars. Some have skin cancer ’cause they didn’t use sunscreen. A neighbor, Steve Murray, lost his sight in one eye when a cherry bomb he threw out his window caught the frame and bounced back into his face, forever altering his life. Lots of lessons are learned in male adolescence. Lots aren’t.

One summer night in high school we were hanging around my Fairfax County front yard, bored yet energetic. It must have been 11 p.m. or so. Richard Cooper, Dwayne Beatty, me, and maybe Johnny Emrico and Bobby Doering were mulling over teen angst. It was dark, okay? Richard still had a cast on his foot from a rope swing accident earlier in the spring. While we were skipping school, and he was under the influence of Boone’s Farm Berry wine, he swung fast and hard off his 1967 Volkswagen Beetle’s hood and flew into space above the Occoquan River near Woodbridge, Virginia. Unfortunately for him, as he let go and flipped a flawless backward gainer, he landed on a large rock and shattered his ankle.

So here we were a couple of months later, unrepentant. Someone babbled that we should drive to Ocean City, Maryland, a four hour car ride back in the day. Like another adventure I blogged about, (the x-rated movie scam Blog #73. Unerringly), the motion to be purposefully stupid was unanimously approved. Dwayne said he’d drive his dad’s gold Pontiac Bonneville. It easily sat six with room to spare. Each guy went home for a towel, no sun screen, some food, money, and maybe left a note for a sleeping parent. I grabbed a half bag of charcoals and a pack of hot dogs.

Away we went at high speeds. On a different night Dwayne had pushed his dad’s Pontiac up to 125 mph on the Beltway. Not on this night. In fact, on our way through small towns in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we all fell asleep until the car jumped a railroad track and slammed down on the other side. For dramatic effect I’ll compare it to a space capsule full of monkeys re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, jolting the animals awake. From there on one of us was assigned to keep Dwayne awake.

When we got to the boardwalk, it was 3:00 a.m. and we imagined we’d just sleep on the beach. The cops had other ideas. They told us we could not sleep anywhere except a hotel, not even in our car. So we sat on the benches until sunup, at which time we were allowed to sleep on the beach. We were tired and hungry. I made a little pit in the sand and lit my charcoals for roasting the wieners. The cops had other ideas. “You can’t have a fire on the beach, kid. Put it out.” I was stunned and still hungry. I kicked sand over my combusting charcoals not knowing that I was simply creating a sand furnace. Later in the day I walked right over my buried charcoal and burned my right foot. One of the other guys had the communal brain at that time, I guess. We all laughed hard at our own stupidity. Somehow everyone survived the sunburnt trip, sort of. Richard got tired of his cast, though, and walked into the waves. In a matter of minutes the plaster softened and he took it off. Bad idea. The ankle was not ready for duty, and pain began to school him again. Apparently he was a slow learner.

It could have been the same summer but a different cast of characters. The only common factor was me. Again, adolescent males bored on a summer night. It was Sam, Chris and Dwight this night. After squirreling around our local haunts, Sam or Chris said, “Let’s go to Dulles airport and watch the planes come in.” All in favor got in Dwight’s green bug and away we went. There was a full moon as I recall because on the way west Dwight turned his lights out and drove by moonlight. Once we got to the terminal we noticed that it was just about as empty and boring as the place we’d just left.

Back in Dwight’s bug, back on the access road, again no lights. As we approached the Beltway, one of us suggested turning on the lights for safety. Dwight did so and, lo’ and behold, a large doe stood right in front of the car, but not for long. Boom! The deer slammed into the hood, the windshield, and rolled over the roof of the car. Mrs. Deer flew up and into history. The trunk, which was in the front of bugs, flew open and bent back on its hinges as Dwight tried to slow down and not crash any worse than we’d already managed to do. He was blinded by the hood, however. In slow motion I recall the VW’s headlights illuminating the woods which we wound up driving into and Dwight’s spare tire bouncing merrily through the trees in the moonlight. It was death defying and hilarious at the same moment. We got out to inspect the damage. Not too bad for us. The deer was nowhere in sight. We fetched the spare, pulled deer hair out of the rear view mirror and hood handle, and bent the hood back into closed position. Somehow, and only God knows how, we made it home alive again.

 

Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be adolescents.

4. next

Two themes have emerged thus far– the coffee summit and the cross country hitchhike. Which way to go? Both, neither, either. The coffee shop has its daily visitors and the daily babble. I have to be careful about revealing Joel the lawyer, whom I recently consulted on the inheritability of coffee reward points. I have been after the barristas to transfer (other customers’) unused coffee reward points to my account. Some folks  have accumulated 600 plus, which means that they have spent $600 without cashing out from the rough and tumble game of caffeine consumption. I use my points as I rack them up because I would not want to be hit by a truck and leave them behind, unknown and unused. Seems logical to me. Joel informed me the other day that coffee reward points are “intangible personal property that can be valued at current market value and indeed left in one’s estate, thereby also being taxable under the Pennsylvania inheritance tax laws” (since the coffee shop is located in Pennsylvania).  Which sure takes the fun out of it all. However, if one simply transfers these points while one is living, no taxes need to be paid. They are like coupons or discounted prices. It’s comforting to know useless information sometimes. You feel less guilty after forgetting it, unlike forgetting how to figure the area of right triangles or the other one that starts with iso–. I’m not going to look up the spelling at this moment. See how the fickle stream of thought meanders around, following the path of least resistance?

Returning to the summit would require examination and concentration; the shoulds and shouldn’ts would kick in. Getting back into the flow of the hitchhiking story would put me in Nashville after two days of standing around major highways and riding in a lot of Volkswagen Beetles. But I wound up in Nashville, 1978 and was exhausted. It was not the first night I’d pushed through without sleep, but it was the first one spent standing in the rain and dark along a highway. I found the Sam Davis hotel somehow. It was large and couldn’t have  been very expensive. I slept the night…it would have been Saturday, and got back on the road on Sunday morning.

Of course another gay fellow picked me up. He was 18 I think. I was 21. No, we didn’t get jiggified. He was leaving his boyfriend’s place and driving home to Arkansas, which is across the Mississippi River if you are geographically challenged. I can’t recall his name, but he was dejected to be leaving his guy behind and wanted to chat with me, I guess. He could talk and I could listen, so off we went. He rewound his entire  high school experience for me, including being outed just before his performance as leading guy in the high school spring drama production. The most beautiful and popular girl in the school, and his close friend, of course, played his leading lady.  They had to kiss in one scene and it was more than many in the community could endure. Somehow they adjusted the scene to spare the sensibilities of the Arkansas audience. His other stories have faded over time, but he was a nice guy. Before he drove north and I continued west, we stopped at a restaurant and, no kidding, he got his high school yearbook out of his trunk and we sat on his bumper thumbing through his recent glory days. No shock, no surprise this time. Just a lit up Southern young man who was excited to be alive.  Amen.

I think the next ride I got was with an oilman in his Lincoln Mark IV. He’d had so many heart attacks, he told me, that he could not fly in an airplane. As a result he drove hundreds of thousands of miles in luxury cars. “No one would believe the kind of miles I put on my vehicles, and I don’t tell them at trade in time either.” 600 miles we covered. He bought me lunch and just wanted to talk to someone. Told me all about his family. How he’d sold the family home after his wife died. His kids got so mad at him that he had to buy it back. He was ready to move on but they weren’t.  He told me some dark stories about the bottom of life also. I’ll spare you those.

Somewhere in Oklahoma, I believe, he let me off. I hated to get out of an airconditioned luxury car only to stand still and sweat by the side of the highway. But it had to be done.

One of my next drivers was a drunk man who stopped and asked me if I had a valid driver’s license. When I showed him my then valid Virginia license, he said, “Drive” and got in the back seat with his whiskey. I felt oddly proprietary and careful of the vehicle. I drove for two or three hours until our ways split. He told me to pick up an honest looking hitcher to replace myself. I did. After a brief interview, my replacement drove this pathetic man away into his blackout.

Two paths diverged in the yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by.