Sunday, December 29, 2013

Movie house ettiquette

Kim and I had just settled into our seats, she with the ginormous bucket of buttered popcorn and me with the gigantic cup of Diet Coke, both of which we would share with each other.

It served as our $12 lunch for our noontime matinee of "Saving Mr. Banks," the Disney picture about Walt Disney's beleaguered effort to coax author P.L. Travers to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins character.

I was looking forward to the flick because I am a child of the '50s. Which makes me a child of the television era. Which makes me a child of (well, in a manner of speaking...) Disney. A Mouseketeer, if you must.

The theater was quickly filling up and it was evident that while the flick was heading into its third week of first run, it was still going to draw a crowd. Seats would be at a premium.

Kim and I had gotten aisle seats because I am a man in my 60s and occasionally need a quick exit for the men's room, especially after slurping on gigantic Cokes. Kim, actually, was in the aisle seat, while I was in the seat next to her. Three vacant seats followed down the row we were in.

My only fear was that those three tempting empties would be filled with a couple of preteen screaming meemies who had no interest in the movie. That does happen sometimes.

So imagine my relief when three elderly women (I say "elderly" even though I think they were probably close to my own age. "Elderly" is a distinction I haven't quite conceded for myself just yet) excused themselves and entered our aisle while coming attractions were on the screen.

My relief, however, was ephemeral.

The third woman in line — the one who would sit next to me on my right for the next two hours — tried to make herself friendly by pointing into our bucket of popcorn so suddenly that I thought she was actually going to grab a handful of the stuff. "Ohh, that looks good," she said. "Is it?"

I immediately went into De Niro mode. "You talkin' to me?" I said to myself. "You talkin' to me?" In retrospect, I wish I had said it to her. Instead, I replied, "Yes, it is," and hoped that was that. End of conversation. Forever.

I looked at Kim with eyes that said "Uh oh." Kim looked petrified. At least she was in the aisle seat.

Moments later, when the opening scene flickered on the screen, this woman reached into her hand bag and pulled out her ... knitting. I kid you not. Knitting needles began stitching socks or a scarf or a hat or something right before my very eyes.

While she was knitting away, whenever part of the score from Mary Poppins came on the screen, she would start humming the tune or, if she remembered the lyrics, she would sing along. Not loudly. Not so that Kim could hear her. Just me. "Chim chiminey, chim chiminey, chim chim cheroo..."

"She's singing along," I whispered to Kim, who looked like she needed some Pepto.

Or, whenever something dramatic happened on the screen (the movie is mostly dialogue driven, but there are moments in Travers' life with an alcoholic father, seen in flashbacks, that promise drama), this woman would utter "Oh, my" or "Oh, dear" or "Oh, no," under her breath. I got some kind of audible editorial comment from her pretty much for the duration.

I figured I was being punished for not offering her my popcorn. Meanwhile, her knitting needles just kept purling away. At one point I was wondering if I should take the needles and stuff them down her throat while knitting a cozy around her larynx, or, perhaps more kindly, jam them into my ears. For relief.

Instead, I tried to stay focused. In the end, I think I enjoyed the movie. I might have to see it again, though. On TV.

I understand we live in a world that takes all kinds. Somebody out there no doubt considers me weird and off my balance. And in a crowded movie theater, it's all up for grabs anyway. You never know what you're gonna get.

But, sheesh, knitting at the movies while humming along with the soundtrack? Jiminy Cricket, I can't make this stuff up. I doubt if Disney could.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mary Lou, Chad: In memorium

 I like to think of a neighborhood as a community within a community.

We share our neighbors' joys, their triumphs, their concerns. We share lawnmowers and garden hoses, shovels and rakes. We share recipes and we share burdens. And when the time comes, we share grief.

Our neighborhood took an unlikely, unfair and unbelievable hit in the past week.

In just a matter of days, two houses, sitting side by side, just across the street from our own, found themselves in mourning amidst the incongruous aura of Christmas lights and candles.

Last Thursday, my neighbor Mary Lou Bell simply could no longer wage her extended battle with cancer. She was just 64. When I learned she had passed away at the Hinkle Hospice House a wave of sadness swept over me. I immediately thought of several conversations we had. She was a teacher, and we talked about education. She was a Renaissance woman, and we talked about art and language. She was a woman of her time and other times, so we talked about history.

Sometimes we would talk on the sidewalk in front of her house. Sometimes we'd talk on her porch, where every once in while a small knot of her friends would appear with a bottle of wine and a bundle of laughter.

My God, how she liked to laugh. I can still hear her even now.

She sometimes brought a different perspective into the conversation and maybe that's what made her unique, at least, to my mind. But she was almost always effervescent and involved. Bubbly. She was an essential personality in the neighborhood.

So we went to Mary Lou's visitation on Sunday afternoon, literally just hours after we learned that Chad Kirkendall could no longer maintain his incredible battle with a cancer so rare it defies odds. Chad was only 40, and that doesn't make any sense at all. Sadly, he leaves behind a young family, including 3-year-old twin daughters.

Chad's sister, Kristi Thornhill, lives directly across the street from us. She's Mary Lou's next-door neighbor.

There's not much for me to document here about Chad, because it seems the entire town knew him and of his plight. That's because Facebook, and perhaps other social media of which I'm not aware, kept us informed at nearly every turn. I'm not kidding: the Prayers for Chad Kirkendall page gathered more than 5,100 "likes," which represents somewhere between a quarter to a third of the population of Lexington.

Which to me means that the community became the neighborhood. Imagine that.

Rev. Ray Howell, in his blog, wrote a perfectly wonderful tribute to Chad (see here).

The one thing that stayed with you through all of this, it seems, was Chad's incandescent smile, which was both a reflection of his courage as well as his determination — or was it defiance? — in the face of this god-awful adversity. You can see it in picture after picture on Facebook and you wonder from where it came.

But then we really do know, don't we?

So the neighborhood steps in a little closer to wrap its warmth, its protection, its love around these families, with whom we gladly share.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas is coming

One of the best Christmases I ever had as a child occurred when I was 8 years old.

When you think about it, 8 is probably the perfect childhood age. It's a time when you are becoming aware of the world around you. Memories are created and begin to stick; memories of friendship and family and customs take shape and never leave. You still believe in Santa Claus. It's a great time.

When I was 8, it was 1959 and we'd just moved from Fountain Hill, PA., to Portsmouth, NH, thus beginning my love affair with New England. Dad was working for the American Red Cross and was stationed at Pease Air Force base, which is another story in itself but we'll just keep that one on the shelf for now.

Anyway, we'd moved sometime in September or October. I got to experience my first autumn in New England and it made such an impact on me then that when I got married 21 years later, in October, to a girl from North Carolina, we took our honeymoon to New England.

That's another story, too. For later.

But in late 1959, Christmas was rapidly approaching. Yes, it was a Christmas without the amazingly decorated Hill-to-Hill Bridge (a first for us), but there was adventure in it, too, because we were in a different place.

I think this gave my parents some concern. My brother, David, and I were busy making new friends in a new place, so it could have been a traumatic holiday if we were not ushered through it just right.

But it was never traumatic.

When Christmas morning arrived, my folks had overcompensated for their fears with a cornucopia of Christmas gifts for us, and Dave and I tore into them with delight. Ribbons and wrapping paper were everywhere. Toys were everywhere. And just when I thought we were done, my Wehrle grandparents were on hand with even more gifts.

Dad: "No, son, open this one first. Let me help."
Dad puts our toys through a test drive. Yeah, right.
My memory now may skew this vision somewhat, but not by much, I think, because I have photographic evidence of this surplus. Here are a couple of pictures of my dad (who was closing in on 30) directing us to which gifts to open — so that HE can play with them. It occurs to me now that he may have been the one suffering from the trauma of moving. I don't know.

(Make sure to notice all of the gifts still to be opened, including the stocking stuffers. Yikes.)

What I do remember is that it was a pretty good day. We were surrounded by gifts, good food and extended family. It may even have snowed. I'm not sure about that, but I do remember snow that drifted as high as the second story of our three-story duplex. I just can't be certain if it was on Christmas or sometime else during the winter. It seems like we had snow all winter long.

We were in Portsmouth for less than a year, but it turned out to be some of the most memorable months of my life.

Because it's great to be 8 years old with all of your potential memories still in front of you. Because now, it's just as great to look back.

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

UR Road Trip!!!

Let me tell you a tale of sumptuous serendipity.

Despite a forecast warning of a possible wintry mix, Kim and I decided the weather prediction was just marginal enough for us to make the two-hour trip to Roanoke, VA, on Saturday to take in an evening performance of the Asheville-based Americana trio Underhill Rose at the quirky Kirk Avenue Music Hall.

Road trip!

This was going to be the seventh time we've seen them in just over a year. In fact, we've seen them five times since June. We have both of their CDs and a couple of their T-shirts. We are clearly out of control. But apparently there is no sanity in unbridled fandom.

From left, Molly, Kim, the world's luckiest man, Eleanor and Salley.
 The weather mostly held, save for a spot of rain now and then. Fortunately, no ice or snow or wintry mix fell on us as we drove up twisty Route 220. We arrived in Roanoke at mid-day, checked into our hotel room, then chilled for a bit before heading downtown to Martin's Bar and Grill, located just two blocks from the music hall.

Kim had wanted to go to Martin's because her maiden name is Martin. Hey, if there's a Wehrle Bar and Grill somewhere, I'm going. It's not that weird. I think.

Anyway, Kim saw there was chicken pot pie on the menu, so that's what we ordered. I became a chicken pie aficionado from the moment I married my Martin 33 years ago, and learned she could make this comfort cuisine with her eyes closed. People have gotten married for lesser things.

About two thirds of the way through the meal I just happened to look up and saw a handful of customers walk in. One of them looked remarkably like Underhill Rose upright bassist Salley Williamson, but I wasn't sure because she was dressed for the cold weather with knit cap, scarf and jacket. In fact, they all were.

Then I saw the other two women behind her. My brain clicked just long enough to confirm recognition before it froze. Oh my God, I thought. It's them.

"Oh my God," I said, choking on my chicken pie. "Oh my God."

There are two variations of what happened next in this story. In Kim's version (she had her back to the women and couldn't see them), I stood up on our table, took off my shirt and waved it vigorously over my head, all while tap dancing around my pot pie while trying to get their attention. "Stop making a spectacle of yourself," she claims to have told me.

In my version, I simply sat in my booth seat, raised my arms over my head and crossed them once or twice, like I was hailing a taxi or something. "Stop making a spectacle of yourself," I thought I heard her say.

My heart was racing. The hostess was bringing them to the table next to ours.


They recognized us just before they were seated and stopped at our table to say a word or two, each beaming their infectious smiles. I thought I might need a defibrillator.

As they were seated I tried to pay them no attention to let them have their space, but I couldn't resist. While Kim excused herself for a moment, and while the girls were waiting for their order to arrive, I ambled over to their table. Molly, the guitar player, thanked us for making the trip to Roanoke. They're just completing an intense two-week tour of the northeast and I commented that they must be exhausted. Eleanor, the banjo player, more or less agreed, but noted there were a few weeks ahead during the holidays for them to rest up and recharge.

Salley indicated they are working on new songs and there appear to be plans for another Kickstarter campaign for their next CD, just as it was for "Something Real," their second effort.

We talked for a bit more, then I wished them a good show and left, since I knew their order was coming.

Everything after that was a blur.


Oh, yeah. The show.

The Kirk Avenue Music Hall is about as wide as two bowling lanes and about as deep as a bowling alley. In other words, it's a very narrow but intimate venue. It seats maybe 60 people but it provides very good acoustics.

The Grahams, a husband and wife team out of Nashville, warmed up the audience, then Underhill Rose followed with perhaps a 15-song set. By now, Kim and I are familiar with their tunes and the stories behind them, and we thought the girls sounded as good as ever. They still sound new and refreshing to us.

Afterwards, they mingled with their fans, engaging as ever.

I'm not a music critic, but I know what I like when I hear it. I don't know a thing about chord progressions, clawhammer style picking, bridges or harmonies.

I just know that they're good. They're very, very good.

And I would give them the shirt off my back.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bridging Christmas memories

Nostalgia can strike without warning and sometimes it's funny what kind of warm, fuzzy memories resurface from long-locked and forgotten time vaults.

Christmas can be especially notorious for nostalgia: The smell of Moravian sugar cakes rising in the oven, a certain carol, a certain card, a special toy can all carry incredible powers of memory resurrection.

For me, it's a bridge.

The Hill-to-Hill Bridge, to be exact.


The Hill-to-Hill Bridge spans the Lehigh River and connects Bethlehem, PA, with South Bethlehem. (The bridge also spans the Lehigh-Delaware Canal and, in its heyday, about 15 railroad tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which was headquartered in Bethlehem. The railroad was the primary transportation artery for bustling Bethlehem Steel, whose blast furnaces sat below and within walking distance of the bridge).

This linen postcard shows how the bridge was lit. What, no traffic?
 The bridge itself was somewhat unique. It had concrete arches over the river and canal and supporting steel trestles over the railroad.

On top of that, it had something like six or seven feeder ramps, which made it possible for traffic to cross the multiple railroad tracks below without stopping for trains, which otherwise would have been nearly impossible for the unwary driver.

Even more uniquely, the bridge formed a "T" across the north side of the river, with the right branch taking you directly to downtown Bethlehem.

I was a kid living in next door Fountain Hill, a quaint bedroom community for Bethlehem before there were bedroom communities. Whenever we went to Bethlehem to visit the Kessler grandparents, we'd use the Hill-to-Hill Bridge. It was magnificent. It was an adventure. I was always in awe of Bethlehem Steel and the railroads. And, even as a kid, I think I appreciated the uniqueness of the bridge itself, which was built in 1921-24 and hailed an engineering marvel in its day.

The Christmas tree, with Central Moravian Church in the background.
Now throw Christmas into the mix.

Bethlehem, founded by Moravians in the 1740s, styles itself as "Christmas City USA." Christmas is everywhere. Moravian stars are everywhere. Bethlehem is the first city I can remember when residents willingly gave up their colored Christmas lights to put white candles in their windows. It was awesome.

The bridge, of course, was a canvas just waiting for its art. Consequently, the bridge was covered with Christmas lights from one end to another. At the "T"  and in the line of traffic — there was a huge Christmas tree (made up of smaller trees, I think) that was lighted. When you're a kid, this is incredible stuff. It's beyond incredible.

Modern Downtown Bethlehem, with the star on top of South Mountain.
To top all of this off, the bridge lies at the foot of South Mountain. Perfect. The mountain was just the platform Bethlehem needed for its famous 80-foot electric star. I never could quite figure out what I wanted to see the most — the bridge or the star.

Fortunately, I got to see both. It was like my head was on a swivel — looking at the lights, looking at the trains, looking at the star, looking at the steelyard. I guess Dad was looking at traffic.

Naturally, it couldn't last. Bethlehem Steel, which provided materials for the Golden Gate Bridge back in the 1930s, couldn't compete with overseas interests and closed its furnaces. The place now features a casino (which had originally been intended for Gettysburg.) The bridge underwent renovations and lost its "T" intersection when Rte. 378 came through from the north. A Christmas tree now stands out of the traffic on a sidewalk area. The branch of the "T" going into Bethlehem is now one way, which still gives you a great view of Central Moravian Church, the grand dame of all Moravian churches, featuring its signature bell tower.

The nostalgia hits hard, and willingly I take it with a grateful smile.

By the way, one of the best parts about leaving the Kessler grandparents after one of those holiday feasts was that we had to go back home — back over the bridge.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Giving Black Thursday the boot

The plan was to go to Belk's Thursday evening.

Kim was casually interested in a pair of cowgirl boots and Belk's was advertising its Black Thursday sale where you could buy a pair of boots for $19.95. The sale began at 8 p.m. and lasted until 1 p.m. the next day.

So we left at 7:45 p.m., thinking, hey, this is the Belk's in Lexington. It won't be that busy. Anyway, everybody will be at Walmart, right? Plus, we'd never done Black Thursday (or Black Friday) shopping before. We tend to shop out of catalogues, so the experience of shopping in a crowd might be enlightening. Maybe.

I can't believe how naive we are, even at our advanced ages.

When I turned down the entrance road to the mall, the parking lot in front of Belk's was jam-packed. It looked like a Jerry Hunt used car lot. The place was top heavy with cars. Cars as far as you could see. Never in my life in Lexington had I seen the Belk's parking lot that filled before. I thought a football game had broken out.

Uh-oh. This isn't good.

I thought, well, maybe we can still go, but as we kept driving closer to Belk's, we saw a gigantic line of people waiting to get in the store. It still wasn't quite 8 p.m. yet, and the line waiting to get in snaked its way from the front entrance doors and around the building until people were standing in the service road. Hundreds of people, patiently waiting to get into Belk's.

It was incredible. Why do people put themselves through this? I turned to Kim.

"Let's get out of here," she said, and so we did.

We actually tried again the next day, getting to Belk's around 10 a.m. or so, but, of course, everything had been picked over by then even though the place was less frantic. Kim couldn't find her size in the style she was interested in, having tried on a pair a half-size too large and another pair a half-size too small. But neither felt comfortable to her. Plus, they weren't even leather to begin with.

"Let's get out of here," she said, and so we did.

So Kim is bootless still. Hmm. Her birthday is coming up in February. Maybe, just maybe...