Monday, December 7, 2015

Hunchin' with Hasil

No, no that Hazel.

This one.

I'm a little fuzzy on just when and how I found out about Hasil Adkins, the West Virginia wild man who sang songs about hot dogs, cutting the heads off his girlfriends, and doing chicken dances and "hunching," which is a word you might never have heard, but it's synonymous with what most rock singers want to do in their songs, if you catch my drift.

Norton Records issued an Adkins compilation, Out to Hunch, in 1986 but I didn't learn about it until the late '90s.

When I'm unclear about where to give credit for my musical choices, I usually dish it out to college radio. From the spring of 1995 to late 2001, I worked for Webnoize (R.I.P.). During those years, I listened a lot to MIT's radio station, WMBR, and Boston College's station, WZBC, both in the office and in my car on the way in to the office. They can share the credit (blame?).

I was happy when Webnoize West Coast correspondent Mark Lewis told me he was into Hasil Adkins as well. We talked about the crazy redneck rockabilly rebel and nobody else really knew, or cared, to join us.

By some miracle, ol' Hasil played a gig at the original House of Blues, in Harvard Square. He was on a 1999 Fat Possum tour with T-Model Ford; my buddy Jeff and I thoroughly enjoyed that show. I had no idea that Adkins was a one-man band. He ambled onto the stage, his wild mop of white hair stuffed under a floppy hat, sat behind a set of drums, got his guitar on and started wailing away simultaneously on the axe and the kit, while howling away into the microphone.

He flailed at the cymbals with his bare hands and kicked the bass drum, amazingly, in rhythm. He was missing numerous teeth and was most likely drunk. It was, as you can imagine, awesome.

Among the bands to cover Adkins' music are The Cramps and Flat Duo Jets.

I started writing this post a few weeks, but got sidetracked. I might've had a larger purpose in mind, but I think just sharing my love of Hasil Adkins with the world is enough, and will have to do. Of course, if you want to learn more, you might want to check out the movie, "My Blue Star," although I'm unsure whether it's available. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dream car

Could President Abraham Lincoln have imagined upon his death bed 150 years ago that one day there would be such a fine automobile as this named after him?

My son, Owen, has really gotten into cars of late. He had a thing for them many years ago, probably at a point when his fascination for subway trains ebbed a bit. We've gone to the annual auto show in Boston each of the last several years. He's excited for this year's show, which is sometime just after the New Year.

When I was his age my thing was 18-wheelers: Peterbilts were my favorite, followed by Kenworths. I was into cars, too, but not like Owen is right now. How excited is he by cars? When I told him today that I bought him the 2016 auto issue of Consumer Reports, he looked at me like I'd just told him he'd won the lottery.

"You did?" he asked as we drove home from school. "Thanks," he said with a handsome grin.

My dad liked to talk about cars. He enjoyed pointing out that "1 in 5 cars you see broken down on the highway is a General Motors car." I don't know a damn thing about how cars work or how to fix them, but I enjoy calling out classic muscle cars and restored gems from the 1930s through 1950s. Owen pays them little mind.

Named for the 16th president of our fine United States, the Lincoln Motor Company was founded in 1917 by Henry Leland, who'd voted for Honest Abe in 1864, according to Wikipedia. Five short years later the company was in financial straits, and was acquired by Ford Motor Company.

So many car companies have gone under over the last 115 years. It's nice to see a classic one like Lincoln still around almost 100 years after its founding. Now, if they could just do something about those annoying Matthew McConaughey commercials.

Well, at least Jim Carrey put the naked bongo player in his place:

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dead Wrong

Sometimes, I act a little too much like this guy:

Yes, Leonard "Lenny" Kosnowski, the Lone Wolf himself. Don't get me wrong: I like being alone to read and write, do crossword puzzles, listen to music and watch TV. I crave quietude. But too often I reject popular opinions or fads because I think I'm above such things. I'm not, but for some reason I like to give the impression that I can't be bothered with mania.

In high school, my good friend Andy was really into Elvis Costello. For a long period, whenever I was in his two-door Toyota station wagon (which looked sorta like this, and which on at least one occasion crossed north of the 100-m.p.h. mark on a late night in our sleepy hometown, but you couldn't prove it by me) he'd be cranking My Aim Is True, This Year's Model or Armed Forces. These albums were chock fulla great songs -- "(The Angels Wanna Wear) My Red Shoes," "Less Than Zero," "Pump It Up," "Lip Service," "Accidents Will Happen" and "Oliver's Army," to name just a few. Andy got our friend Bene (R.I.P.) into Costello and his band, the Attractions. So Bene would often blast the Artist Formerly Known as Declan Mcmanus as well.

And they'd sing along and rewind songs (yes, rewind, kids; this was the olden days) to hear favorite parts, and replay the same songs ad nauseam. They'd pound the steering wheel and dashboard, pretending they were Pete Thomas on the drums. I liked Elvis, sure, but I didn't want to hear his music so much. So, rather than join in the fun and just go with it, I'd give them shit about it.

"Why are you playing Elvis again? He's not even that good!"

Eventually we went to see him live, and he was terrific. And at some point, after their mania died down, I admitted to myself, and perhaps to my friends, that this Costello guy was pretty damn talented. I don't own a lot of his albums, but I have a few and really enjoy them.

I've had this contrarian reaction to plenty of other things in my life. My wife and her family decide to drink Dark 'n' Stormys during our annual Cape Cod vacation, and I opt for something, anything, different.

I bought a liter of Orange Crush and mixed it with vodka, dubbed it Orange Crash and pretended that it was just as good as their beverage.

At a family gathering, my family -- sister, brother, cousins, wife, kids -- were having a fantastic time playing Heads Up! on somebody's iPhone, howling with laughter as they acted out clues. Along with a few other folks, I was chilling in my sister's living room when the whole Heads Up! gang rushed into the room, insisting that I had to play.

I didn't react well. Not at all. I pulled the Grumpy Old Man and told them I didn't want to play, and that if I'd wanted to, I wouldn't have been hanging out in the quiet living room, would I?

They shrugged me off and went back to their fun. I felt like an idiot.

I'm an introvert, plain and simple. This doesn't mean that I don't like to have fun, but it does mean that I have a hard time joining large gatherings and being spontaneous. But my oppositional attitude is more than that. I want to be cool, to be the one who discovers an awesome thing, whether it's a band (I take at least a little credit, but none of the blame, for the popularity and longevity of the Flaming Lips) or a TV show ("American Gypsies," which turned out pretty stupid).

On those times when I follow the trends, I often get burned -- "Heroes," "Nashville" and the first season of "Glee," I'm talkin' 'bout you.

In the grand scheme of things, this quality of mine isn't a big deal. I joke about it. I'm comfortable with it for the most part.

This topic has been on mind a bit in the last few months, as I watch my fortunes fall in a fantasy home run derby contest run by my wife's brother-in-law.

The contest goes like this: before the MLB season starts, each person picks a team of 15 guys who he thinks will hit a ton of home runs during the season. You can't pick anyone who had 30 or more round-trippers the previous year. I've played three or four years now, and have never done all that well. I've had times during the season when I'm hanging in the Top 10 (there are usually between 25 and 40 competitors) but eventually I fade. I finished very close to the bottom a few years ago.

This year, like every year, I swore I was going to climb up the rankings by conducting exhaustive research into players, teams, power rankings, Fantasy Baseball listings, etc. I don't play regular Fantasy so I don't follow the game too much outside the Red Sox and the American League East.

But I put in the pre-season number crunching and scouting to see which older players might have some power left, which up-and-comers are gonna break out, and which superstars who were injured the prior year might be eligible this time around.

This year the big story of spring training across the league was Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs. A rookie, Bryant hit more home runs than anyone during pre-season. I had him on my radar, of course, but was also looking at one of his teammates, Jorge Soler. A rookie like Bryant, he was projected to do well and hit a fair number of home runs. But the odds-on favorite for biggest breakout star, and probably Rookie of the Year, was Bryant.

I went with Soler.

As of this writing, Soler has 7 long balls, and is injured. Bryant has 24 and is the awesome player everyone expected and most people, perhaps everyone, went with on their derby teams.

I thought I knew better. Just like I figured Mike Napoli's great spring training would translate over to the regular season, despite his being on the old side and never having hit more than 30 home runs, and that was four years ago.

With two and a half weeks in the season, I'm in last place. By a lot.

I was, as it turns out, dead wrong.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Si Amadon Opens the Valise

The valise was where Mr. Farquhar said it would be, under the red maple tree just past the ".5 miles to summit" sign. Normally, Si Amadon would have put Pierre to the task. But this was a delicate mission. "Discreet, all the way," Amadon told Mr. Farquhar.

Getting his oft-shined boots dusty in the pursuit of contraband was hardly Si Amadon's forte. Dapper as Clark Gable, Si Amadon was a teetotaler and physical fitness enthusiast, the living embodiment of his banking business: tightly controlled, disdainful of G-men and zip-lipped.

On occasion, though, he sought out adventure, as it reminded him of tramping through the woods on his family farm as a boy. Though he'd chosen finance as a way out of the hinterland, he still kept in his heart memories of his favorite book, "The Pirate's Treasure or the Strange Adventures of Jack Adams on the Spanish Main."

And so he walked up the mount, his freshly pressed, Hart Schaffner double-breasted overcoat pulled close to maximize a quick ascent. Before he reached the red maple, he caught a whiff of his quarry. His heart fluttered like a money-counting machine and he allowed himself to skip, just once, before reaching behind the tree and taking hold of Mr. Farquhar's gripsack.

Within the folded red silk of the case, under the Kipling book and bottle of powdered rhubarb, beneath the false bottom, Si Amadon found the prize.

Lifting the box, he looked 'round for interlopers. Seeing none, he opened the lid, bent forward just a bit and let the waft rise to his ample nostrils. It was deep and earthy, but also heavenly and capable of transporting him to an exotic, foreign land. He fumbled in his coat pocket for his lighter. Removing it, he admired its dazzling sheen and likeness of a bathing beauty. He fired it and smiled.

Holding the box steady with his left hand, he carefully removed the cigar with his right. It was a Sancho Panza Molinos, trucked up two days ago after arriving in the port of New London. She was a beauty, hand-rolled in Cuba and stashed in a bag of sugarcane. He lit the cigar and savored it. As instructed by Mr. Farquhar, he emptied the box into his coat pockets and placed it back in the valise with the other items.

Then he turned to descend, back to the bank, back to his wife and children, back to a place where nobody knew his vice. There, standing in the middle of the path stood Bigfoot, who snapped this picture.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Owa Tafoo Lye-am

"Play like an old man," Beth always reminds me before I head to play softball.

"I will," I say.

I have every intention of keeping that promise in the abstract. I know that I'm the oldest guy on the team, and there's no need for me to dive after ground balls or run my hardest around the bases. It's a very laid-back league and nobody will really care if I don't give 100% effort.

But once I get on the field, I'm not so practical. I'm not much more than a singles hitter, but I pride myself on my defense. I try and get to every ball that's close to me, whether in the infield or outfield. I dive, lunge and hustle to the best of my ability.

After injuring myself in the first game of the season (see April 25, 2015, "My Favorite Pastime"), I took a few games off, and once I returned I took it relatively easy. I was feeling good about my fielding and hitting.

Last night was our first game in a few weeks, and I was excited. "Just stick to playing third base," I told myself. "You don't have to move too much."

But our team was shorthanded, so I ended up switching between the hot corner and the outfield. That was fine for the first five innings (one of which I sat out because, well, I don't know, rules of some sort about not having enough women on our team). In the bottom of the sixth I jogged out to right field, figuring not much would get hit to me.

Well, you know where this story is going. A right handed batter slices one between me and the foul line, and I take two steps, reach out my glove and feel a jolt of pain in my right groin/hip/upper leg. I hit the ground and know I can't get up. The center fielder backs up the play but the guy rounds the bases. I limp off the field and trade places with the designated sitter.

I stretch and try to walk it off for a few minutes while the other team bats. I know this won't do any good, but I have to try. Then it's our turn to bat, and I have to try that as well.

I come to bat with the tying run on second base and two outs. I hit a hard grounder to third, but two steps out of the box and I can't go any further. I'm out, the game is over, and I feel stupid.

I slept like crap last night, a cocktail of pain, self pity and inward-directed anger swirling through my body. I tell myself I have to stop playing softball, period. I'm a fool to think that I'm not going to keep hurting myself, especially after having had hip surgery (see August 1, 2013, "On the Mend").

But then I move around, and while my groin/adductor muscles are still quite sore, and I'm shuffling like a zombie, I begin to see that I have another game or two or three in my near future. I realize that if I play smart -- really smart this time, not just abstract smart -- I can continue to enjoy the game and the fun that goes along with it.

Maybe some day soon I'll be able to hit 'em like this guy:

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Meaning of....

Preparing myself mentally for this Saturday, when my family will spread my dad's ashes in a garden at his church, I came back to Neil Young's "Daddy Went Walkin'," a song that took on great meaning to me in the days and weeks after my father's death. I was surprised, as I searched online for Young's interpretation of the lyrics, by other people's impressions of the song.

In a PopMatters review of Young's Silver & Gold album, Bill Holmes's interpretation is that the song "deals with broken families from the perspective of a hopeful child." Concert reviewer Chris Nelson, writing on, says of the song: “While the lyrics seemed simple, Young’s purposeful delivery rendered the lines cinematic. One could picture the song’s narrator, only as tall as the weeds, walking beside a towering father."

"'Daddy Went Walkin' is just a playful number about Dad going out and cutting wood, accompanied by the barnyard cat. Is that really worth a song?" asked Jeffrey Overstreet in reviewing Silver & Gold on, a Christian-themed entertainment site. "Like a William Carlos Williams poem about a red wheelbarrow, Neil Young is calling attention to the lasting value of simple memories, simple lives, simple tasks."

Other reviewers thought the song simple and rather stupid, and not worth their time.

Looking for meaning in a song, poem, book or movie is subjective, of course. Where others hear a child's voice or the value of honest work and living simply, I divine a middle-aged guy imagining his father in the afterlife, ambling along happily with his former pets, doing some chores and thinking about the day he'll be reunited with the love of his life.

Mama's waiting / at the top of the hill,

They'll be laughing / oh the stories they'll tell...

When he holds her / in his arms again

They'll be sweethearts / with time on their hands

I plan to recite, possibly even sing, these lyrics during the short service on Saturday. Listen to the song, and let me know what you think it means.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

My Favorite Pastime

That's me up there, in 2009 before the last baseball game of my illustrious career. A teammate took that shot of me prior to our game in Cooperstown, aka the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I played in one game of a tournament on the same field where they filmed parts of "A League of Their Own." Known as Doubleday Field, the diamond was built in 1920 and has hosted games of all sorts, including some regular season Major League exhibition matches, throughout the years. I felt honored to play on the field, but bummed because my appearance there marked the end of a five-year period where I returned to hardball after 25 years away from my favorite sport.

I stopped playing because it just wasn't right for me to disappear for a summer's worth of Sundays when I had two young kids. When I returned to the game at age 40, my son, Owen, was three. Two years later, my daughter was born. After five years, I considered joining another league that played weeknights, but opted out after Owen decided he wanted to play Little League. I coached his team and didn't know if I could commit to night baseball while overseeing his team.

Prior to my five-year return to America's national pastime, I played softball for a few years with my wife, Beth, and her father, Rich. I really liked playing, but as I crept toward 40, I harkened back to my youth, and my favorite game: baseball. I played Little League and Babe Ruth for seven years, and sandlot baseball seemingly from birth until I went away to college. I was never much of a hitter, but I prided myself on my defense.

I made two All-Star teams, one in Little League and one in Babe Ruth. I have no problem telling you that the reason I made the Babe Ruth team was because my best friend's father coached the team.

All of this is a long way of telling you, my faithful follower(s?) that last night I got back on a softball field for the first time in more than a decade.

Recruited by a neighbor, I joined a team with the unfortunate name of Awesomesauce. The only time on a field I had before the game was a brief batting practice last weekend with two neighbors and one other teammate. Felt good to be out there, which made me excited for a game.

I had no idea how much I would play, or what position. Mostly, I thought about not hurting myself. Every season I played hardball I managed to tweak something: a hamstring, a quad, a groin. One year I got spiked and hobbled around for a few games afterward.

I went to the gym yesterday morning, focused on stretching, a bit of cardio and not too much strength work. And of course, I managed to tweak my left adductor muscle doing an exercise I should have been smart enough to avoid.

Last night was a cold one for softball, but I was happy to be at Hoyt Field in Cambridge, a diamond I never knew existed although it's only 15 minutes from home. My teammates are all nice, and the game started well with us scoring a bunch of runs. I knocked in a run with a single in my first at-bat. I made a few plays at shortstop, and knocked down a ball that prevented a run from scoring (although that run and a few others scored later in the inning).

Trouble came in my second time at the plate. I hit a grounder to third and had to hustle down the line. About halfway down the base path that tweaked muscle announced to me that I was perhaps a fool to be doing what I was doing. I limped across the bag a second after the ball hit the first baseman's mitt.

I played in the field again, and had one more at-bat, during which I hobbled around the bases and managed to score a run. By that time, however, our team was down by quite a few. We lost to a team with a lot of big hitters.

I'm bummed about the injury, but hoping I can nurse it along with stretching, Advil, whiskey and taking myself out of the action a bit more. I had surgery two years ago to clean out torn cartilage in my left hip. My hip/lower back/upper leg nexus are weak and aren't gonna get any better. My right hip has begun to feel sore lately. If I can't play more than a few games this season, that'll be it for me.

It sucks that the older we get, the harder we have to work to do something as simple and fun as play softball. Last night I watched balls fly over my head, deep into left field, and thought, "Man, five years ago I could've run that ball down." My father-in-law played softball well into his 60s, and many of the guys from my hardball team are still chugging along well into their 50s and 60s, so hope is alive in them.

I know, I know. Sounds like I'm making too much of an injury. But it's a nagging one that has plagued me off and on for quite some time, and there's nothing I can do to make it better. Rest, stretch, baby it a bit. Maybe look into hip replacement or bionic adductor surgery....

Monday, April 6, 2015

Baseball is back....

It's been a long winter, and although spring has sprung, it hasn't brought very warm temperatures to Boston this week. But that's OK, because it's Opening Day!

One of my favorite memories of going to Fenway Park is the game that Beth and I attended with Owen and my dad in 2009 (see picture above). A friend of mine from college handed over tickets (free of charge!) to the State Street Pavilion. We had great seats along the third base line, didn't have to deal with huge crowds for food and beer and honestly I don't remember if the Sox won (I think they did) but it was just so cool to be there with three generations of Sox lovers.

My dad passed away a year ago today, the day after my 49th birthday. Those few days in the hospital with him and my family were the toughest of my life. I'm thinking of him today and remembering all the times we played baseball, listened and watched the Sox, both on TV and in person, and just enjoyed the simplicity of soaking in our favorite sport.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Masquerade

Millard went to the grange that first warm Saturday of spring with murder on his mind. Calvin, a fellow ranch hand, had kissed Millard’s girl, and he was going to hell. Disguise was the key. Tingling in ecstasy as he rummaged his mother’s steamer, Millard imagined the blood splattering on her striped cotton pajama pants. Her swim cap, which lent her elegance that his father’s meager salary denied them all, would make a nice kufi. Beetle-shaped silver earrings – where did these come from? No matter. A bracelet on his wrist, and two over his taut biceps; perfect. From the wooden peg he’d tapped ever so gently into the wall above his sister’s sweet-smelling dresser, he stole the golden mask that had won her flitting favor with the mayor’s son. The silk sash he plundered from the textile museum two towns over, and which his girl had refused, felt lush against his torso. The vest ripped from his father’s closet smelled of failure. From the shed, he took a length of chain, making sure not to get any gold paint on the odd pieces of metal hanging from the links. The piece de resistance: a whimsical horsehair mustache.

Skimming the edges of town, Millard boiled with anticipation. His enemy’s manner with the ladies was as smooth as his ruddy cheeks. The last dance he performed would find him not with a pretty paramour, however, but alone, whirling and twirling as the blood spilled from the cross-shaped wound above his adulterous heart. From the grove of pine trees behind the grange, Millard could see the building was filled with revelers, so happy in the innocence of the moment. Quiet as a ghost, he snuck up to the back door. The smooth pattern and earthy smell of the clapboards warmed his demon soul. In a flash, he was in the kitchen, closer to the ruckus and revelry, his fist tight around a stainless steel knife. The band was raucous, loud enough to cover Calvin’s screams. Millard’s outlandish outfit would sow confusion. The dim lighting offered an easy getaway.

Like a diva taking the temperature of the room, Millard peeked through the window on the swinging kitchen door. In a near corner he spied the young schoolteacher, Miss Hartley, laughing through her nose at the minister’s dim wit. Behind them, under the Stars & Stripes stood his boss, Mister Peavey. “He’d never know me in this get-up,” Millard snickered. A conga line passed close to the door, arms flailing and legs sprawling to the crazy Caribbean beat. He recognized no one. A female pirate. A cowboy. A devil. A witch. A harlequin. “What the deuce? What is going on here?” The calendar pages flipped backward in his mind. He saw himself writing “Masq Ball” on Saturday, March 30. He intended to ask Dolores until he saw that scoundrel plant a kiss on her outstretched hand. Then he marked the last Saturday of March as “Murder Day” on his mental calendar. But where was the Cad? Which of the ladies in disguise was his favorite flower? He could hardly go ripping masks off the celebrants. Join them, he told himself. This will be fun. Murder can always wait.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Watching "Lou Grant" with My Dad

My dad passed away four weeks and a day after his 85th birthday. He would've been 86 today. He was a great man who donated time and/or money to countless organizations, from the YMCA to Springfield College, Simsbury ABC to soup kitchens in Hartford. He was a regular blood donor, helped coach my Little League team and was an officer for the retired men's organization in my hometown, Simsbury, CT.

He taught elementary school for 35 years, and after retiring at age 62, mentored and tutored students for many years. He also acted in countless plays over the course of his life. Through all of these activities, he received many honors and awards and various sorts of recognition. I was aware of all of these activities to some degree, but what I remember about him are the smaller moments.

In the fall of 1994, I moved back in to my parents' house for a few months, with my girlfriend (now wife), Beth. We had moved from Boston to Middletown, CT, in the fall of 1993 so Beth could complete a clerkship, after finishing law school. Our lease in Middletown ended in September of 1994, but she had a few more months of work to do before we made our planned move back to Boston.

Living with my parents was a bit strange -- when I moved to Dover, NH, in the summer of 1988 I didn't expect to be back for any reason other than visiting. But my parents are great people, and we all got along well. One of my fondest memories of this brief time comes to me just about every time I eat peanuts, one of my dad's favorite snacks.

I was working a temp job at Fleet Bank in East Hartford, CT. This was the only point in my life I used the bus to commute. One of my parents would pick me up at the stop, about a mile from their house. Beth drove herself to work and back, and worked later than I did, so I had time to kill each day before she got home.

My dad and I fell into a routine of watching "Lou Grant," a drama that was spun off from the incredibly popular sitcom, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." I was never a huge "MTM" fan, but I did like Mary's boss, the grumpy Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner. "Lou Grant" ran from 1977 to 1982, but I didn't watch it then.

Thank God for syndication. The show was right up my alley: it starred Asner as a character I already liked, although he was more hard-nosed in this show than he was in "MTM." Grant is an editor for an L.A. newspaper; I worked for my college newspaper while earning a B.A. in journalism, and then for my hometown paper after.

My dad had been a fan of "MTM," I believe, so he was obviously into checking out "Lou Grant." The show dealt with weighty issues, ranging from nuclear proliferation to mental illness, capital punishment to chemical pollution (thanks, Wikipedia). My dad cared about societal issues such as these, so the show was right up his alley, too.

I liked Grant, and identified with the two reporters, Rossi (played by Robert Walden) and Billie (Linda Kelsey), and got a kick out of staff photographer, Animal (Daryl Anderson).

I have no great recollection of specific episodes. I suspect the show stands the test of time, as it won 13 Emmys and two Golden Globes, among other honors.

What stands out in my mind about the show is that it brought my dad and me together. We would discuss the issues, laugh here and there, and just hang out in my parents' rec room. I would often load up a plate with some peanuts, and cheese and crackers, and often my dad would offer me a beer in a frosted mug.

In my head we did this every day for the few months Beth and I lived there. I'm sure that's not true,

I miss my dad, and the simple pleasures of watching TV, snacking and drinking beer together. I think of him when I eat peanuts, or tell my kids a corny joke like, "What time do you go to the dentist? Tooth-hurty!" or steal food off one of my kid's plates.

Today I'm driving to Connecticut to meet my mother, sister and a few other family members for lunch. I'm looking forward to hitting the open road, where my mind can wander to so many good memories of my father. At lunch, I'm sure we'll share stories about my dad and have some laughs. I wonder if Ruby Tuesday offers a cheese, cracker and peanut appetizer, with a Piels in a frosted mug to wash it all down?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Panama City Beach in Pictures

The first thing that struck me when visiting Panama City Beach, Florida, was the Waffle House sign directly across from our hotel.

I had no desire to eat there, nor at any of the many other Waffle Houses in the area. OK, I'm lying if I deny my curiosity about the Pecan Waffles and the Pork Chops & Eggs. Instead, we ate breakfast at the in-house restaurant each morning, and the ready availability of bacon, sausages and mini pancakes was terrific.

One place I wish I had eaten was Thomas' Donut and Snack Shop, which has been around since 1971. I believe a key lime creme-filled donut or a smoked sausage and cheese kolach would've felt just right.

If I'd visited Panama City Beach by myself, instead of with my wife and kids, I might have stayed at this place, which has been around for more than 40 years.

When it was built I bet the Fontainebleau was really chic. The hotel's web site mentions that its "rich history" includes "numerous celebrity visits," but let's face it, that list could include Joey Heatherton or John Davidson. Nowadays on TripAdvisor people complain that the front desk is unstaffed and that there is "MOLD! MOLD! MOLD!" As I drove past the Fontainebleau, I saw the shot I wanted: a guy in a white t-shirt standing on a balcony, probably smoking a cigarette, under that great big sign. I missed it, though.

To be fair, some folks on TripAdvisor reported having a fine time.

I wish I'd brought my copy of the Magna Carta with me, so I could've visited one of PCB's numerous pawn shops. Coulda scored me some guns, jewelry or coins.

There were almost as many drive-through liquor stores as there were pawn shops. There's a reason Panama City Beach is considered a crucial component of the so-called Redneck Riviera along the Gulf Coast.

While the halcyon days of old-school amusement parks are long gone, there are plenty of newfangled entertainment options. Such as the Vomatron.

And if you need a t-shirt to clean up your puke, or simply want to watch an alligator being fed, drop by Moby Dick's.

Haven't yet had your fill of giant artificial sea creatures?

Check out Big Willy's Swimwear or the Jaws souvenir shop.

For those of you who like a little turf with your surf, make sure to say hi to Big Gus before you strap on the feedbag at Angelo's Steak Pit.

There are so many blinged-out mega-hotels and condos along the beautiful white-sand beaches here, that when you're on the water looking toward the shore, it's brighter than Flavor Flav flashing his grille at high noon.

Seriously, though, the days of the modest motel in PCB are numbered. There are a few still standing, although Inn Paradise seems likely to be torn down soon.

The simply titled and quaintly situated Beach Motel seems to be doing OK.

A few doors down from the Holiday Inn Resort, where we stayed, stands the Bikini Beach Resort.

Somewhere between a motel and a hotel, this place features Bikini Dave's Tiki Bar. Now you're paying attention, aren't you?

Our hotel was really nice. We enjoyed the oversized hot tub a few times, and took a few walks on the beach. In looking through a pamphlet about area attractions, I saw mention of "historic St. Andrew's" in Panama City, which is a distinct entity from PCB. I convinced Beth and the kids to make the 20-minute drive across the Hathaway Bridge over North Bay, and check out this funky little neighborhood.

We ate lunch at the Shrimp Boat, a spot picked out by my son, Owen. It was a really great restaurant right on the water, with delicious soups and sandwiches, and an incredible chocolate cake we split four ways. As we drove into St. Andrew's and back out toward our hotel, I made note of several places I wanted to return to so I could snap photos.

The first picture I took upon my return early the next morning was this beast, which hangs right outside the Shrimp Boat. None of us noticed it when we were there for lunch.

This is a pretty good ad for the several charter fishing boats docked here.

Diagonally across from the Shrimp Boat is this old motel.

After seeing so many vacant lots along the beach that obviously used to feature motels, I got bummed when I saw this place. A sign on the front of the building says, "Cabana Courtyard Mall Coming Soon!" After doing some research into the place, I found out that the owner of the Shrimp Boat is redeveloping this property and will save at least some of the old motel.

St. Andrew's has become a hot spot for funky shops and restaurants lately, from what I understand. I wonder how much longer this topless bar will last?

A sign on the door lets patrons know that t-shirts are available. Obviously, these are not offered to the dancers.

I love this building. The members of this lodge might control the U.S. government, worship the devil or be in league with the Illuminati, but at least they have style.

Moving on....

This is the first museum I've ever seen dedicated to small-town publishing.

Beth spied this cool old sign on the road into St. Andrew's.

The little guy holding the "COAST TO COAST" sign is Speedee, the first McDonald's mascot. He was phased out in 1967 in favor of Ronald McDonald. Somewhere in there, according to various online sources, there was a character named Donald McDonald, who was portrayed by Willard Scott. Yes, that Willard Scott. Here's a commercial to prove it:

See, and you thought you were just coming here to look at some pretty pictures of the Gulf Coast. Didn't think you were gonna get a history lesson on fast-food mascots, did you?

I posted the above photo on a Facebook group, and a guy there who knows his stuff indicated that the muckety mucks at McDonald's didn't intend for restaurants to use the script logo for exterior signage. Rather, it was "supposed to be part of the packaging/trayliner advertising media package only. A lot of franchisees decided on their own to use it for signs and other unintended uses, and McDonald's was not happy about it. That's probably a reason why it's use was so short-lived."

You're still learning, aren't you?

From an interesting story about one of the most famous corporate symbols in world history, we move on to....a boring strip club.

Open 4 p.m. til 4 a.m. Friday-Sunday. Oh yeah, and they're hiring more girls.

After I finished taking shots in and around St. Andrew's, I took the long way back to our hotel. Here's an idea of the odd dichotomy you find in beach towns: humble brick apartment building just a few blocks from an opulent resort.

On our last full day in Panama City Beach, we ventured to St. Andrew's State Park. We went for a short hike, wary much of the time of seeing alligators. I think I was the only one who wanted to see one, albeit from a distance.

We didn't see any gators, but on a brief walk on a pier I saw this beast.

I'm no ornithologist, but I believe this is a heron of some sort.

Then, I got one last look down the beach.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Dear Mr. Fred Lynn"

Ah, 5th grade! King of the Hill. Top of the Heap. A Number One. Life was good at Latimer Lane School in Simsbury, CT. I had a cool teacher, Mr. Cashman who, along with the other 5th grade teacher, Mr. Stepanian, used to play kick ball with us at recess. We had a "bubble hockey" table in the classroom, a bunch of us boys formed an informal club that, all these years later, I can't recall if it revolved around yo-yo's or cool erasers on the ends of our pencils. Or maybe both. I discovered that it was OK to like girls. I acquired the nickname Wiggy. We got to listen to some kid's 45 record of "Brass Bonanza," aka the New England Whalers fight song, which on the B-side had an epic fight between the Whalers and the Minnesota Fighting Saints called by broadcaster Bob Neumeier.

Outside of school, I played Little League, on the Yankees. I was (and remain) a huge Red Sox fan, so I wasn't initially too excited to play on the namesake of my team's hated rivals. But all that really mattered was playing my favorite sport with so many of my friends. I also played baseball with my older brother, Steve, and my best friend, Pat, and his brothers. We played on the school's field, and used a tennis ball instead of a hardball, so none of us younger kids would get hurt when the older guys batted. I loved to play shortstop, imagining that I was Rick Burleson, aka Rooster, my favorite Sox player.

At some point during the 1975/76 school year, we were given an assignment to write a letter to somebody famous and request a signature or token of some sort. Although Burleson was my favorite Red Sox, I chose to write to Fred Lynn, who in 1975 became the first player to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season, as center fielder for the Sox.

I don't recall how we obtained addresses for the people we wished to contact. These days, of course, it's easy to look up people and organizations online. Through some sort of educational sorcery, the teachers and librarians accessed the information. Wasn't hard to find the Red Sox front office address, I'm sure.

Let's pretend I have a copy of the letter that I mailed to Fred Lynn....

Dear Mr. Fred Lynn:

My name is Dave Brigham. I'm a 5th grader at Latimer Lane School in Simsbury, Connecticut. I have loved the Red Sox since I was born, because my brother and father like them. I play second base in Little League on the Yankees, but it's OK, because we're not very good. I watch your games whenever I can, which isn't often enough, because although cable TV has been around since the late 1940's, I have never heard of it and won't know of its glories and magnificence until the early '80s. In the meantime, I catch the occasional game on Channel 38, a UHF channel out of Boston that, through the miracle of science, arrives on my parents' black-and-white TV set in our rec room. But I digress.

A lot of times I listen to Sox games with my dad and/or brother, either at home or in the car as we travel around town or to such exotic vacation destinations as Cape Cod, New Hampshire's Flume Gorge and some YMCA camp in Torrington, CT, where some of my family got sick. Throw-up sick. Funny side story: once while we were at a swimming hole (do they have swimming holes where you're from?) in my town, my brother asked my dad if he could have the car keys so he could turn on the car radio and get the score of the Sox game. He turned the key to the right spot on the steering column and turned on the game, but somehow managed to bump the shifter into "neutral" and the car started rolling. Here's the funny part: I don't remember how this story ends, but everybody lives.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, can I have an autographed picture? You're awesome, you won the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. Sure, you and your teammates lost in one of the greatest World Series of all time, and taught me my first lesson in professional sports heartbreak, a lesson that I have a feeling I will learn again in 1978, 1986 and 2003, although I suspect at least two of those years won't be your fault.

So whatta ya say, Freddy Boy?


Dave Brigham

I waited approximately 8,000 years for a reply from the Great Mister Lynn. In the meantime, I played hockey in the classroom, flag football outside (we had a league -- a LEAGUE! -- and I was on the champion Rams, which was QB'd by my buddy Tyler Brown), day-dreamed about Cathy Ruddy and found myself wondering whether the United States Bicentennial celebration in July would live up to the hype. I mean, think about it? How do you honor 200 years of revolution, industry, slavery, repugnant race relations, the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Henry Ford, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Greatest Generation, George Carlin, the guy who invented the beer ball and so many other things?

Finally, the day arrived! The postman strutted into Mr. Cashman's classroom like he owned the place, and started flinging envelopes at kids' heads and yelling, "Mail, suckah!"

I ripped open the delivery, wondering how Mr. Fred Lynn had managed to fit a glossy 8x11, signed photo of his famous face into such a small envelope. I quickly scanned the boilerplate mumbo-jumbo typed neatly on Red Sox letterhead.

Dear [Insert fan name here]:

Thank you for your correspondence.

Sincerely, [Insert name of sports organization].

At least there was a picture...of the whole team. With Fred Lynn's autograph...stamped on the lower right corner.

Despite being let down somewhat, I knew that Mr. Fred Lynn surely hand-picked the team photo -- heck, maybe he even TOOK the picture -- and no doubt would have signed it by hand if he wasn't concerned with injuring his throwing arm, but surely he flipped open the stamp pad, grasped the autograph stamp firmly in his left hand, firmly pressed it into the ink and brought it down with authority on the picture that was destined to travel the Mass. Pike from Boston all the way to my school in little old Simsbury, CT.

So I've got that going for me. Which is nice.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Sign

Over at my other blog, The Backside of America, I chronicle the hidden elements of our world, from run-down mills and abandoned factories, to ghost signs, shuttered movie theaters and forgotten quarries. Of late, I've been consumed with putting together as full a picture of possible of the backside of my adopted hometown, Newton, Mass.

I spend a LOT of time poring over old atlases and maps on the City of Newton web site and conducting online searches to try and figure out what the 13 neighborhoods of Newton looked like a hundred years ago. I'm trying to ascertain which buildings from the early 20th century are still around, and how their uses have changed. I also want to know what buildings are long gone, and what's in their place now.

I also peruse Google Maps, as I look up addresses from old atlases and see where they are so I can take pictures. While looking at online maps today as part of an ongoing process to learn about an abandoned house in Newton's tony Chestnut Hill section, I came across this image on Google:

I'm used to seeing people walking their dogs on Google Maps, or just strutting along, but this image stopped me in my tracks. This property is a convent owned by the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth. I'm not religious in the least, but I'll take this as a sign that an answer will come soon about the nearby abandoned property....

Monday, January 5, 2015

Take My Grandfather, Please

(My grandfather, Al Bogert, with my brother and sister. Note the dollar bill in my sister's hand. Grandpa never came empty handed.)

Faced with a lack of facts, or people to check them with, we sometimes make up family history. In my fictionalized account, my mother's father could have had his name in lights on a vaudeville stage if not for the selfishness of a man who became known the world over for telling jokes while scratching away on a violin.

This is a story about music, family and what might have been, but also of what was and what might yet be. This convoluted statement should not be confused with Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be."

Music is a major part of who I am. I've loved listening to music as far back as I can remember, from Paul McCartney & Wings when I was young, up through Southern rock as a teenager and on to punk rock during college. These days I listen to indie rock, classic rock, blues, electronica, alt-country and more. I joke that I started turning the volume to eleven early in my life, as a way to to drown out the sound of my older brother and sister arguing.

I'm the only one of the three of us who plays an instrument, although my sister gave the flute a try, and my brother has always liked to sing. I like to think there's a direct line of musical talent that runs from me and my guitar playing, to my mother and her love of piano, and back to her father, who played piano and organ. I don't know whether my grandfather's parents or grandparents were musical.

I don't believe that my father's parents were musical, although my dad had a lifelong love of singing and acting in community theater productions.

I started playing the clarinet in 5th grade, but it must have been at least a year earlier when my interest in the woodwind was piqued. My mother played the piano in our house regularly, and after the movie "The Sting" came out when I was in 3rd grade, she bought the soundtrack. The album featured a few versions of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer"; the orchestral arrangement featuring the clarinet was the one that grabbed my ear.

For reasons I've never understood, I asked my mother, "What instrument is that?" I wanted to learn to play it, and since she had tried, with little success, to teach my siblings to play piano, she must have figured, here's a kid who actually wants to play music. She and my dad talked about it, and in short time, he procured a used clarinet. My life as a musician had begun.

My first teacher was Mr. Levine. He gathered a small group of 5th graders in a cramped room near the school's boiler room -- or maybe it was the boiler room. I recall one or two kids playing saxophone, and I believe one other clarinetist. I'm sure there were a few other kids, too, perhaps flutists.

Each week we squeaked and honked and tooted our way through basic lessons. I don't recall what we played, but before long I had learned the basics of reading music. I wanted to learn to read and play well enough to duet with my mother on "The Entertainer."

I continued playing in 6th through 8th grades, performing in a few school band and orchestra concerts. As time wore on, my interest in the clarinet flagged. I didn't practice as much as the teachers wanted, as I found doing so boring and unsatisfying. I never learned to play "The Entertainer."

As 8th grade came to an end, I realized that if I continued playing clarinet in school, I'd have to be in the marching band. Although my friend Bene would be playing trumpet in the band, I had no interest in joining him. Thus ended my clarinet career.

I'd always liked guitar-heavy music, and enjoyed goofing around on my best friend's father's old guitar. Around this time both my mother and father had taken acoustic guitar lessons, but neither of them stuck with it. So I borrowed the guitar one of them had bought, and signed up for lessons one night a week at my elementary school.

I learned old standards including "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," "Sloop John B" and "House of the Rising Sun," as well as Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." Those were great, but I wanted to play rock music. The older brother of a kid I played street hockey with was in a band and worked as a guitar teacher on the side, so I became his pupil.

I learned songs by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Ozzy Osbourne and others. Over time, I began to write my own songs and figure out covers of songs by the likes of The Clash and U2. In college, I played in a band for two years, performing numerous times on campus and once off campus. I had a great time, although often I was quite nervous and always had an out-of-body experience while on stage.

I recall telling my grandmother once that I was in a rock band. She told me something that has stuck with me through the years: "A lot of people might think you're just making a bunch of noise," she said to me. "But as long as you like it, that's all that matters."

Her statement surprised me at the time, but it shouldn't have. She was, after all, married to my grandfather, who'd spent his life playing piano and organ, including a stint with that guy I alluded to in the opening paragraph, and the title of this post. Some of you likely figured out right away who I was talking about. For those who didn't, I'm referring to Henny Youngman.

Born in 1906 in England to Russian emigres, Youngman moved to Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section as a child. He loved to tell jokes, according to numerous biographies I read online. His father loved music and saw to it that Henny learned the violin. Eventually, Youngman formed at least one band. My grandfather, Al Bogert, was in one of those bands.

The story of how Al Bogert met Henny Youngman is lost to history. My grandfather grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, which is a few miles from Bay Ridge. I'm guessing they met because of their shared interest in music, through friends or acquaintances.

I don't know when the two got together to make music, or for how long. Even the name of the band that my grandfather played in is unresolved. My mother remembers that he was in the Select Star Syncopators; I can't find any reference to that band online. The band linked with Youngman during the Roaring Twenties and into the early '30s was the Original Swanee Syncopators, sometimes referred to as just the Swanee Syncopators. I suppose Youngman could have changed the name.

That band worked "all manner of dives, from Coney Island sideshows to New Jersey's immortal Nut Club," according to a 1991 Chicago Tribune article about Youngman. During the band's performances, Youngman often told jokes. At some point, at some club -- and none of this is clear to me after I read several sources online -- a comedian on the bill didn't show, and the club owner asked Youngman to fill in, and he did so well that he decided to launch a solo, stand-up career.

Some sources indicate this happened at the Nut Club, but even the location of that long-ago venue is in dispute. The New York Times, in an article from many years ago, quoted some folks as saying it was in Westfield, NJ, and others who claim it was in nearby Mountainside. Wherever it was, I hope my grandfather got to play there. In its obituary for Youngman, Time magazine said the Swanee Syncopators were playing at the Swan Lake Inn in Swan Lake, NY, when the club owner heard Youngman's jokes and "decided to save money by firing the band and telling the funnyman to stay."

Now, for the whole premise of this essay to work, I have to prove that my grandfather was in the Syncopators when Youngman ditched the band and went solo with his schtick. None of the articles I found (many of which have the same information, probably stolen from Youngman's autobiography) give a date for this schism between bandleader and band. My mother believes that her father played in a band (unclear whether it was still with Youngman) until the early '30s. My mother was born in 1932, her brother in 1929.

What matters is that my grandfather continued playing music throughout his life. "He played mostly 'popular music of the day,' according to my mom, "but he did have a few classical pieces he perfected." He had a baby grand piano in the house in Brooklyn where my mother grew up, but he sold it when he and my grandmother moved to a retirement community in Lakehurst, NJ. Of course, he couldn't be without a keyboard of some sort, so he bought a huge organ with two rows of "stops," or keys that corresponded to different sounds, such as "Acoustic Bass," "Harmonic Trumpet" and "Xylophone." My grandfather took organ lessons in New Jersey when he was in his mid-60's, my mom said.

I absolutely loved playing with that keyboard during our visits: using the foot pedals, plunking the keyboard, manipulating the sound with dozens upon dozens of stops.

The organ looked something like this:

For more on the vast universe of organ stops, check out the Encyclopedia of Organ Stops.

My grandfather passed his passion and gift on to my mother. I have fond memories of my mother playing piano -- Scott Joplin, Judy Collins, Christmas carols and other holiday songs, and one of my favorites, "Kitten On the Keys."

"Grandpa could really play this piece," my mom remembers.

Was he robbed of a chance for greater fame? I don't think so. I doubt many jazz combos made much money during the Depression, and Yougman's obvious talent lay in telling jokes, not in playing music. Still, the man who made the quip, "Take my wife, please!" famous, didn't forget my grandfather. My mom remembers that her father told her that at some point years later he and my grandmother went to see Youngman perform in Manhattan. They went backstage afterwards to see Youngman, who was very cordial and introduced my grandparents to some other folks, presumably at least some of them famous.

My grandfather loved to tell jokes, too, and do little tricks and play games with us kids when he and my grandmother visited us in Connecticut once or twice a year. I wish I'd known about the Henny Youngman thing when I was a kid, so I could've asked him for the straight dope. It's not really important to me that he played with the famous comedian, although it's a cool footnote. What matters is that I'll always feel a connection to him through music, just as I feel a bond with my grandmother through her kindness and understanding.

As for the future of music in my family, there is great hope. Owen took drum lessons for two years, and although he doesn't play his kit much these days, he and I do talk on occasion about getting our two-man band, The Megachips, back together. Amelia loves to sing and dance, and has told Beth that she'd like to take piano lessons some day.

Beth bought a microphone for the kids for Christmas, and she and I have already jammed on the Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut." Why that song? Because the riff popped into my head, and she found the lyrics on her smartphone with ease.

So maybe someday the four of us will form a band and work a few jokes into our set.