Friday, November 22, 2013

My day 50 years ago

There's a ton of retrospectives going on right now. Each, for better or worse, is a momentary slice of history frozen in time. And memory.

Time is indelible. Memory a little less so. Both can be profoundly personal.

So what was I doing 50 years ago today — which also happened to be a Friday?

I was 12 years old in 1963, caught in the throes of the seventh grade. Just three months earlier, I'd made my debut at Nitschmann Junior High School, which was a big deal. It meant I was an incredibly naive pre-adult. I was being taught sex education in a class conducted by a phys ed instructor who was so crude he'd probably be decertified, if not actually incarcerated, in today's world. But I think we thought he was funny back then.

The seventh grade was our first introduction to assembly-line education. As students, we'd actually go to different classrooms for different subjects instead of staying in the same room with the same teacher all day long. Bells rang every 45 minutes or so (the outer limit of our attention spans, no doubt) to announce the next class change.

On this particular Friday, in mid-afternoon, we were in home room. The weekend was nearly upon us — heck, the holiday season was almost here, which in Bethlehem, Pa., (the Moravian community's self-style "Christmas City") is huge — so we weren't paying much attention to anything else other than going home. Dismissal was about an hour away.

Then came an announcement over the PA system. This in itself wasn't unusual. We'd get PA reminders for the coming week on Friday's — but this one was decidedly different. We were asked to bow our heads in prayer for the president, who'd been shot. School was over for the day.

And that was all.

In retrospect, I guess at that point in the day, that's about all anybody knew. The 24/7 news cycle was still decades away, but I remember wanting to know more.

I lived about two miles from school, and walked it each and every day. It was not as tough as you might think. The neighborhoods protected their children in those days. I could use a sidewalk the entire distance, from my front door to the school entrance (although sometimes we'd cut through yards, or use alleys and, occasionally, lived dangerously by walking the trunk railroad line to the Durkee's spice plant, which always smelled deliciously of cinnamon. It was next door to Nitschmann, across the athletic field.)

I ran home. I might have stopped once or twice to catch my breath, but I had to know what was happening. Even as a 12-year-old, I could sense something enormous was unfolding. A government — our government — was in trauma. We couldn't know it then, of course — we still had to live it —but our national contentment, our innocence, our expectations were about to change.

But on that day, I was electrified. I was glued to the black-and-white Philco as history paraded itself before us, and I was mesmerized.

What is hard to comprehend now is that this happened 50 years ago. It hardly qualifies as recent history anymore. Now, as I watch the events unfold, I want to reach out and warn the Kennedys. I want to stop time. "Don't go, don't go," I shout to myself, and it has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with saving a life.

And I fail every time. How could it be any different? In the moment, I'll always be 12 years old.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

In step

When I was a schoolboy living in Fountain Hill, Pa., one of the great anticipations of my life was the village's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.

At least, I think it was Thanksgiving. My memory shifts like sand in the tide on this one. It could have been a Halloween parade, although I don't think so because I'm pretty sure Santa Claus was involved somewhere near the parade's denouement. Santa usually doesn't appear at Halloween parties. He didn't used to, anyway, although it doesn't really matter. Right now, the parade's the thing.

Like all parades, it featured beauty queens riding in open convertibles, marching bands, local dignitaries, fire trucks, policemen, Kiwanians and Odd Fellows. Streetside vendors, even back in the 1950s, sold instantly breakable toys, popcorn and cotton candy to squalling children. I might have been one of them.

Every so often, a color guard would appear and maybe a JROTC squad. Back when I was 5 and 6 years old, I might have thought the JROTC were real soldiers because, you know, they carried wooden rifles. I remember wanting one of those rifles, which I guess were really triggerless facsimile rifles not meant for the shooting range. It amazed me that majorettes carried rifles, too, and they could twirl them with ease high into the air — and then catch them in mid-twirl, like they were batons.

That still amazes me, actually.

Anyway, those parades came in my formative years and I've been enamored by parades ever since. Somehow, the parade gene has been injected into my DNA.

You have to admit, there is a certain rhythm and beat to a parade, no doubt set and maintained by each passing marching band's drum corps. So when this year's Veterans' Day parade came marching through town, I was there. Happily.

I applauded the grand marshal, the school and chapter queens, the fire trucks and police cars. I might have even waved at a local politician or two (not sure).

But I do have one complaint. Keep in mind this is not a complaint borne of disdain or anger. It's simply a complaint borne of observation: why can't the JROTC units march in cadence?

There were several JROTCs in the parade, and basically each member of each unit was marching to his own drummer. What the heck? High school bands were marching in near-perfect cadence — left, right, left, right, you had a good home but you left, you're right — as were color guards, police officers and anyone else who could keep time to the beat. But the JROTC units were strolling along at a social pace as if they were getting ready to feed the ducks at City Lake. And I wasn't the only one who noticed this.

If anybody should be marching in perfect cadence, shouldn't it be the JROTC? Where's the pride? Where's the precision? If they don't teach anything else in JROTC, shouldn't they at least teach marching?

The Christmas Parade is approaching fast. There's still time.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Underhill Rose redux

Ten days ago I received an email from The Dispatch telling me that I had some postage from Underhill Rose.

What? C'mon. I'd retired from The Dispatch seven years ago. How could Underhill Rose even locate me, much less send me mail? More curiously, why would they even attempt to find me?

"Our publicist looked it up," said Eleanor Underhill, one third of the trio from Asheville that performs mostly their own originally composed Americana, with Eleanor on the banjo and harmonica, Molly Rose on the guitar and Salley Williamson on the upright bass.

Inside the packet was a CD release of their brand-new holiday single "One Time a Year." Also included was a Christmas card with a homey picture of the girls in grandma-ish holiday sweaters, and inside the card was a hand-written note addressed to "Bruce and Kim" thanking us for our support.

To be remembered like that is astounding enough, but it gets better. Kim and I were already looking forward to their performance at High Rock Outfitters on Saturday, but a few days ago I got a phone call from my friend Lee Jessup, reminding me of the annual pig pickin' coming up in Gene Klump's backwoods lot on the same day.

"Are you coming?" asked Lee. Well, of course I was. I'm a retired sports writer. We never turn down free food.

"By the way," said Lee, "we booked a little entertainment this year. Underhill Rose will be there."

I thought I heard him say Underhill Rose was going to be there.

"What? What?" I croaked. "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope," said Lee. "Will you and Kim be there?"

"Of course we will. I've got to go now, Lee. I'm about to pee in my pants. Bye."

This was one of the most anticipated Saturdays of my life. The weather broke cold but sunny. We got there a few minutes before the girls did, and when they arrived in their SUV packed to overflowing with equipment, I offered to help lug stuff. So I was given the assignment of carrying Molly's guitar to the porch of a little bungalow where they were going to perform.

This means now I'm not only a groupie, but a roadie as well.

Within minutes, they were performing in the fading November sunlight.

Molly, Salley and Eleanor give us a sample of what music is like in heaven.
Pause for interlude: This whole scene is oddly remarkable and serenely surreal. Underhill Rose released their "Something Real" CD in June where it eventually peaked at No. 18 in the Americana Music Association chart (a chart that includes the likes of Willie Nelson, John Fogerty, Mavis Staples, Paul McCartney and many other recognizable artists. It's still in the top 100 on the charts as we speak, where it has been for 23 straight weeks). And now they were performing in Gene Klump's corn field.

They played until the sun went down and it got cold enough to hurt your fingers strumming string instruments. They joined the circle of friends at the toasty campfire, where they enjoyed barbecue, desserts and conversation.

I asked Salley if the three of them still have fulltime jobs, and they do. She and Eleanor are certified teachers, and Molly works for a health supplement outfit. They perform mostly on weekends, ("We're still weekend warriors," said Salley) traveling to gigs across the southeast.

"When do you practice?"

"We practice every Wednesday," said Salley. "We just go to one of our houses and get together."

Oh my gosh. "How do you do it?" I asked, marveling at the ridiculous schedule they keep.

"I don't know," she said, and I believe her. They're just young, I guess.

A little while later, the trio was at High Rock Outfitters for another performance. This time they were basking in a warm, cozy ambiance in front of about 50 of their dedicated fans. It was also their first ever live performance of "One Time a Year."

Pause for interlude: I know I keep saying they're getting better and better each time we see them, but it's no stretch. Their harmonies, for which they are drawing critical acclaim, seem to be tighter and more precise than ever. They really, really appeared to be relaxed on stage, where they had an instantly comfortable rapport with the audience. They say High Rock Outfitters is one of their all-time favorite venues, and it shows.

They performed for nearly two hours, then afterward mingled with the patrons. They repeated only a handful of songs from earlier in the day, indicating their songbook of covers and originals is extensive and thorough.

My own pause for interlude: Kim and I are convinced that Molly, Salley and Eleanor are the genuine article. They are not only musically talented and modelishly attractive, but I also believe them to be sincere and dedicated to their craft and honest to their fans and to themselves.

I didn't have any real requests for them this time, and yet, I still have one request of them — please, please, please never change who you are.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The car from hell

My car needed some warranty work done last week.

Because it's still under warranty, I take it to the dealership in Winston-Salem. This particular job included fixing the timing on the windshield wipers (which would wipe first and spray later), and fixing the express window on the driver's side (the window would, on occasion and on its own, roll back down to reopen after rolling to the top to close).

I had to wait a few days as a part that was ordered arrived, but when I made my appointment, I made arrangements for a courtesy car since all of this service was happening out of town.

I like courtesy cars. They are, almost always, current model year vehicles with just a handful of miles on them. They smell new. Courtesy cars give me an opportunity to test drive other vehicles that I might want to consider buying sometime in the future.

On this particular day — Halloween Eve — all of that changed.

The dealership, apparently, was swamped with customers and its fleet of courtesy cars was close to depleted. So when it came to my turn, the loaner waiting for me was a 13-year-old vehicle with 134,000 miles on it.

The ignition key was actually a real, old-timey key without a hint of remoteness. The interior smelled suspiciously of grade 87 octane fuel. Lawnmower gas, as my father-in-law liked to say.

Whoa. The worst was yet to come. When the service rep filled out what would serve as my license/registration paper, he wrote down the serial number. "Oh, lookit this..." he said with surprising nonchalance while writing down the numerals, "6-6-6..."

You've got to be kidding me. The day before Halloween and I get the AntiChrist's own car?

I had no choice. I hopped in, belted up, started the ignition and headed home. The car rattled the whole way. It pulled a little to the right. At least the radio was working. I turned up NPR even louder to drown out the mysterious rattles.

But everything worked out in the end. My wife told me to cool it — the loaner was actually six years newer than her own car — so it could be worse. And why do I need a new car for a loaner anyway?

I suppose she's right. I just hope the next time I need a courtesy car, it's closer to Christmas than Halloween.