Sunday, September 25, 2016

My past finally catches me

File this last week under "You just can't make this stuff up."

A few days earlier, my cousin — whom I'll call Deb — posted a throwback Tuesday picture of herself on Facebook from nearly 50 years ago. It was an image of her as a flautist in the Liberty (Bethlehem, Pa.) High School marching band. The Grenadier Band.

Standing with her in the photograph was a bandmate, whom I'll call Nanette. I didn't think twice about the picture for a while because, you know, it was pretty innocuous: just a couple of high school chums smiling for the camera. Cute.

Until a little bell started ringing in my head. Wait a minute, it chimed. You went to school with a Nanette. Elementary school. Stevens School, in Fountain Hill. First grade.

Nah. Not possible. So I private messaged Deb, asking her if Nanette ever lived in Fountain Hill, a neighboring community of Bethlehem where I grew up.

Why, yes she did, replied Deb, who is still in contact with Nanette. You're kidding me. The chime became a gong. The only reason that Nanette popped up in my mind at all is that she's perhaps the only person named Nanette that I ever knew.

And I knew her way back in first grade. Sixty years ago.

Consequently, my memories of her are kind of spotty. They might be the first memories that ever took hold in my brain, which explains why they now linger somewhere in the shadows of my synapses and neurons. What I do remember is going to a birthday party at her house. I think. It might have been the first social function I ever attended that included girls. And there was chocolate cake. Why do I remember that detail? I know why. Chocolate cake was important to me then.

Still is. Holy cow.

I have since submitted Nanette a friend request on Facebook, but she has yet to respond. She probably thinks I'm a stalker, but that's OK. I understand. I'd be leery of me, too.

The fact that my cousin is a conduit for all this makes this story even stranger because Deb and I pretty much have just reconnected our own family ties after nearly 50 years or so of invisibility. After my parents and grandparents passed away, I thought all I had left from my family were my brothers.

Not even close. Now I've learned there's a whole extended family of cousins and their children floating around out there. It's a comforting epiphany.

The story would be amazing enough if it ended here, but no. There's more.

On Friday, I was playing around on Facebook when I noticed that I had a friend request — not Nanette — from a guy I'll call Richard. Clear out of the blue. I thought and thought hard about this until it occurred to me that I had gone to school with a guy named Richard back when our family lived in East Hartford, Conn.

Fifth grade. Get outta here.

Richard and I lived just a block or two away from each other. Richard introduced me to Avalon Hill war gaming, and we'd spend countless hours at his house defeating Hitler's Fortress Europa or Napoleon's Waterloo with dice and elimination charts. You know. Normal kid stuff.

To this day, I still have several Avalon Hill war games collecting dust in my closet, now replaced by computer games.

Anyway, I accepted his request and we are friends again.

I asked him how he came to find me and he explained that he somehow tripped across a blog I had written that's hiding out there in Internet land. He knew almost right away that I was me (a concept that I'm still exploring) and put in his request.

So now I'm trying to put this week into perspective. It's hard to get past the "Wow" factor here, but when two blasts from the past rise up out of the mist in the same week, it kind of makes you think. Karma? Kismet? Koincidence?

I don't know. I'm kind of hoping there's not that many long-ago girlfriends out there...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A moment

The other day one of my colleagues at work pointed out to me that the high school class of 2019 — this year's freshmen — is more or less the first class of students not yet to have been born when the brutal horror that is Sept. 11 occurred in 2001.

I let that one rattle around in my head for a moment. It was for me, at once, both a profound and an obvious thought.

I guess the thing that knocked me off stride was the fact that 9/11 happened 15 years ago. Really? It seems like yesterday.
It was a gorgeous Tuesday morning. Autumn was coming. I was already in my work station at The Dispatch, and had been for several hours. The clear blue September sky that we saw in North Carolina that day enhanced the entire eastern seaboard, reaching to lower Manhattan as well.

Then a fellow worker, reading off the Associated Press wire, announced that an airplane apparently had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.

I didn't think much about it at the time. I thought maybe a little Piper Cub or something like that had clipped the building, and went on with my job. There was precedent: I remembered hearing stories about a B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building in a heavy fog during World War II. It was all just very odd and didn't seem to make any sense.

But as the morning stretched on, the news worsened. When the second tower was struck, it was immediately clear this was no accident. There was video: a jet passenger plane dissolving into a ball of flame upon impact. Instant death.

Then the Pentagon was attacked. The morning was never going to end. We learned the plane had been hijacked. Yet a fourth plane, also hijacked, had crashed in Pennsylvania, headed to Washington DC and perhaps either the White House or the Capitol.

No more flights were allowed to enter the country. There was speculation that any suspiciously rogue aircraft still in the sky would be shot down. With their passengers.

 Oh my God.

The one image (of many) that's seared into my brain came later that morning. We'd finished deadline and most of the reporters were gathered around the television in the editor's office. We were watching the chaos of the burning buildings when suddenly, but as if in slow motion, one of the towers collapsed in on itself. Where a majestic building once had been there was now a pillar of smoke and debris.

I have come to regard this day as our generation's Pearl Harbor. Like the Class of 2019 in relation to 9/11 now, I wasn't yet born when the Japanese attacked. But I have depended on the oral, written and photographed history of that event to build my understanding of the moment.

Understanding the moment. It was a challenge for us then. And it's a challenge for us now.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

My ear for music

In a couple weeks Underhill Rose will be in Lexington, where they will perform at High Rock Outfitters, one of their favorite venues.

This time, when they sing, they'll be recording tunes for a live CD album. Awesome.

I'm going to have to find a way to contain myself. I usually like to sit on the front row where I can let their music envelop me like some kind of a comfortable blanket. Who ever thought a banjo and a harmonica could be so evocative? Or that an upright bass could be so foundational? Or a guitar so sweet?

Or harmonies so heavenly?

So I'm going to have to shut up. Sometimes, sitting up front, I can catch their eye, or point to them after a nifty riff, or applaud, or shout out "You go girl!" as I once did as Eleanor weaved her way through a solo banjo bit.

The last thing anybody wants to hear is me croaking something on their CD.

With that in mind, I just hope I don't feel compelled to sing along. That's because somewhere along the way, I've been cursed. I love music. I love the way an instrument can reach into your soul and stimulate the fibers of your being. I love lyrics wrought with thought and meaning, or that can create a picture with the palette of colors within your mind.

The curse is that I can't sing. I can't sing a lick. I can't sing a note. At least, not in tune with anything musical.

Nor can I play an instrument.

I don't know how this curse came to be. My dad played both the piano and the trumpet. Mom had a wonderful alto voice. When I was young, around kindergarten, my parents tried piano lessons on me, but the discipline of learning music never took hold. I tried the trumpet a few years later and that was an even worse experience. I was, figuratively, shedding my musical scales.

Clearly, I didn't inherit the Play Music gene. I inherited the Play Games gene.

Then came the Sixties and suddenly transistor radios where bringing us great music everywhere. I tried to sing along, but as I learned, one note only goes so far. So I hummed. Try humming to Sgt. Pepper.

To this day, with Sirius in our car radio and tuned in to Sixties on Six, I am swept overboard by great music. Just yesterday, while Kim was in the post office, I was singing along with Chad & Jeremy's "A Summer Song." It's a tune that evokes a mystic chord within me, transporting me back to 1966 and high school and girl friends and all that is good in my nostalgia.

But when Kim returned to the car, she turned the volume up. You know, to drown me out.

I hate sitting on my hands when live performances put my entire being in rhythm. But the women of Underhill Rose are also my friends, and I don't want to offend them. So if sitting on my hands is what it takes, then sitting on my hands is what it is.

At least I can hum.

•  •  •

Underhill Rose will perform at High Rock Outfitters, located at 13 S. Main Street, Lexington, on Sept. 17, starting at 7 p.m. Admission is $10.