Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In the heart of a campfire


If I was honest enough to remember the whole truth
I’d probably recall some very uncomfortable or even miserable experiences while dirt camping, but why would I want to do that? Anybody who intentionally spends hundreds of dollars plus weeks in excited preparation for the opportunity to sleep on the ground, live in a perpetual cloud of dust and occasionally poop into an open pit has no grounds for complaint on any level, least of all personal convenience.

These days Carolann and I visit the great outdoors in luxurious, indoor comfort. We have an air-conditioned 32-foot motorhome with a queen size bed, full size shower, complete kitchen and two TVs. It’s wonderful, it really is.

But camping, it ain’t.

My dad had a big, unbelievably heavy canvas tent. It was bigger than some honky tonks I've been in and smelled almost as bad. He had to prop the thing up with a couple of poles I think he bought from a circus fire sale. If it was seventy degrees outside it was ninety-five in the tent. If it was sixty outside it was forty-five in the tent.

By the time I started taking my son Jeremy camping the equipment had improved dramatically. Our tent was lightweight nylon. It was the first of those now ubiquitous domed things supported by three long, flexible poles. It didn’t have to be tied to stakes in the ground by twelve ropes poised to grab a foot every time you walked to the outhouse. The downside of my new nylon igloo was its height, maybe four feet tops, which was fine for a kid but forced me to mimic a horizontal pole-dancer just to get out of my sleeping bag, dress and exit through the little flap at the front with four or twelve maddening zippers.

I taught Jeremy to build a campfire the old-fashioned way: with paper under kindling, under twigs, under sticks, under three logs wigwammed in the center. It was a thing of beauty. We would stand back in appreciation of our half-hour handiwork before we lit the match.

After he mastered that I introduced him to “fire-starters,” those wonderful, waxy chunks of compressed sawdust that make it possible for any idiot with a Bic to start a campfire. Boy Scouts need not apply.

My dad taught me to fish, of course, just as his had taught him, in the fast and frigid trout streams of Wyoming. I wasn't very good at it but that's what fathers and sons do. It's tradition.

My kid broke the curse. Oh, I taught him and he caught his first fish when he was five or six. But the next time I asked him if he wanted to go fishing he said, "Dad, you know you can buy fish at the store, right?" That finished the sport for me and I still owe him for it.

But I miss it all: the laughter from nearby families, the smell and WOOSH of a white gas-powered lantern sputtering to life; the crackle and smoke of a jolly campfire properly-built of wood chunks gathered and chopped by hand. I even miss the dirt.

In evenings such as those by the campfire, with no TVs, no iPods or WiFi, we had no choice but to talk with each other about fanciful, imagined wonders and deep philosophy; of past events shared and joyously remembered which made us a family, and of hopes and dreams which we would then take with us into our sleeping bags.

And, staring through a nylon mesh at God’s stars we inhaled deeply the fresh yet smoky pine air, smiled to ourselves and closed our eyes to sleep the unburdened sleep of woodsmen.

It felt good and wholesome.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Boy toys


The first car I owned was a 1957 Hillman. It was brown and boxy and not at all “cool.” I looked very odd in it. I looked like a fifteen year-old kid wearing his grandpa’s shoes.

I got my first car when I was still a sophomore in high school. Actually, I wasn’t even old enough to drive legally and, trusting that the statute of limitations has passed, I will now confide that my mother sometimes let me drive my car – illegally – to the store to pick up some milk or get her a pack of cigarettes. (Back then, in the sixties, she had to give me a note for the cigarettes or they wouldn’t have sold them to me. No way.)

I loved driving that car so much I would actually try to split one trip to the store into two or three trips. You know, buy the cigarettes so she would be happy and relaxed and then admit I had forgotten the milk so I would have to go back.

Sometimes my mom would let me drive to 7-11 to get an Icee and a package of Hostess Sno-Balls or something. She was a great mom and still is. (Nowadays I go to the store and get her the odd box of wine without her even asking or having to give me a note.)

By the way, the price of gas at the time was around 25 or 30 cents a gallon. I’ll pause for a moment to let you absorb that.

From the Hillman I graduated into my dad’s 1966 Corvair Monza and after that I can’t remember all the vehicles I’ve owned in the ensuing forty-two years. I can probably remember most of them but who cares, really? I never did much care what I was driving. To me, it was always just transportation.

And now, for some reason I am at an absolute loss to explain, as Carolann and I are talking about downsizing, reducing our stash of stuff and retiring in a nice, manageable mobile home or something – now I own three vehicles and today placed a deposit on a fourth! I’m not kidding and look, I don’t intend to sell any of them!

I will literally have more cars than I have pairs of shoes!

We now have a pickup truck to carry my camper, a 33-foot motorhome and Carolann’s van which cost more than my first house.

Gas, for all intents and purposes, is $4.00 a gallon.

And that’s why today I made a refundable deposit on one of these.

Yes, I'm quite serious. It’s an electric-gas hybrid called an Aptera that will allegedly get 300 miles per gallon of gas.

But boy, am I ever going to look odd driving it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Touchstones

A couple of weeks ago I was at a traditional/dixieland jazz festival in Three Rivers, California, visiting my musical friend, Bob Ringwald.Bob Ringwald

If that last name rings a bell, movie and TV star Molly Ringwald is Bob’s daughter. He never mentions that in passing conversation but he's proud of all three of his grownup kids and pleased to tell you about their families, careers and current projects if you ask.

Bob is the piano-playing leader of the very tight, very hot, Fulton Street Jazz Band based in Sacramento, which is home to both of us.

Ringwald has the happiest fingers that ever danced a keyboard. The fact that he is blind is no handicap for Bob but to those of us whose eyes work just fine but possess fingers like clay bricks, the way he can sit down at a foreign, rented piano and attack it without even appearing to search for middle-C is astonishing.

The funny thing about Bob and me is that we knew each other decades before we met.

When I was a teenager I never talked with Bob but enjoyed his jazz piano and singing at Capone’s Chicago Tea Room and Pizza Joint in Sacramento. Years later he would enjoy listening to me on the radio.

Bob's life took him to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mine passed through L.A. and Memphis.

We both always returned to Sacramento and eventually we howdied and shook hands at the world famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, where Bob has played piano since the Jubilee’s beginning thirty-five years ago and where I have been a volunteer go-fer nearly as long.

I've never been to Bob's home or him to mine. I can't claim him as an intimate friend but there is a unique closeness I think we both feel in the happenstance that we made ripples in the same pond and they eventually touched.

This year I’ve been invited back to emcee the Jubilee Opening Day Parade. It’s a great honor and a very special homecoming for me but the one moment I am especially looking forward to is when Bob rolls out in front of the reviewing stand on some flatbed truck, tinkling the ivories and grinning like some old ragtime Cheshire Cat, which he surely is.

I’ll see many other longtime friends in Sacramento that day. I’ll also recognize a lot of people whose names I don’t remember but whose company I fondly recall.

But seeing Bob Ringwald again will be as special as his rendition of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag.

He’s a magical touchstone to my youth, my present and my future.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Anecdotes of the heart


I don’t know for sure what got me thinking about Coach Rodness.
Maybe it's just because it’s April and as you have heard, in spring every young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love — love of baseball. Well, that’s true of old men, too. At least for those of us who played the game with a feverish passion many years ago and can’t quite get it out of our hearts.

But I don’t think it was any of that.

Today I told my youngest son something that sparked a synaptic link to a memory from my self-glorified past.

My son has recently had a spat with his wife. It has gone on for several days and is making both of them miserable. Having “been there, done that” (one of the greatest colloquial phrases ever adopted into American lexicon) I have grown weary of it and I told him, simply, “You love her and so do we. Make your peace with her.” It was just that simple. Dad had spoken. “Fix it,” I told him.

And suddenly I realized where I had heard that calm, persuasive voice before.

Bob Rodness was a physical education and baseball coach at Highlands High School in the Sacramento suburb of North Highlands in the late nineteen-sixties. I was a skinny semi-nerd who could hit a little, couldn’t run worth a damn, but played baseball like nothing else in the world mattered because in my world at that time it was true.

One day in P.E. class we were playing softball. Keep in mind this was the spring of 1968, right around the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was a time fraught with racial tension and fears that we Northern California teenagers of the moment had trouble assimilating into the limited observations and half-baked philosophies of our very young lives. From our shortsighted perspectives it seemed the world was divided into colors and you took your side, you had no choice. We knew it wasn’t as simple as that, of course, and that segregation and bigotry were wrong by definition but we were too young and inexperienced to make sense of such worldly confusions as racism, assassination and, not coincidentally, the war in Vietnam.

We who grew up in the sixties need to look upon those events as the vortex to the psychological confusions that haunt us even now.

Back to the softball game…

I was pitching, a black kid I didn’t know was the batter. For no reason whatever he began taunting me in a mean, angry way. I don’t pretend to understand the world through his eyes, not then or now, but he was mad. He yelled a lot, I said something back and the next thing I knew he was on top of me, pummeling me for no reason at all other than the fact that I was on the opposing team and I was white and skinny.

Imagine something like that happening today. We would have both been hauled into the office, for starters. Police would have been called. No doubt both of us would have been suspended or expelled. It’s entirely possible that felony charges would be filed against one or both of us and dueling lawsuits would be launched. We’d be front page news and a community would divide and take sides.

Lives could have been ruined for a minor scuffle between a couple of dumb kids.

What actually happened forty years ago was Bob Rodness. He simply yelled at us, “Knock it off, you guys!”

And we did.

That kid went back behind the plate, I threw the ball and he hit it. I don’t remember where or how well he hit it. The story was long over by then. The game continued, the period ended, we went on to our next class and forgot about it.

Admittedly, that was a different time in a naive world entirely alien to us now. But some things stick in our psyches forever.

“Knock it off, you guys.”

That’s essentially what I told my son today: “This fight with your wife has gone on long enough. It’s stupid.” The end.

But here’s the Bob Rodness story I really want to tell you, not because it made any lasting moral impression on me. Though, it might have, I just don’t know yet. I just love the memory of this:

Some fifteen years or so after graduating from high school I was a volunteer tending the exit gate at a music venue during the world-famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. In those days volunteers were allowed, indeed encouraged, to drink and make merry as they performed their duties. I took the encouragement to heart.

Two beautiful women in their twenties approached the exit gate requesting entrance to the party. I informed them nicely that they would have to wait in line at the actual entrance gate. But gosh they were pretty, and I was nicely toasted. We got to chatting and as we did an older couple approached my gate. With one arm around each of the beautiful young ladies, a large beer in one hand and cigarette dangling from my mouth, I heard the girls exclaim in unison, “HI, DADDY!”

It was Coach Rodness and his wife. And even though it had been fifteen years or more since we had seen each other he recognized me.

He sized things up quicker than I did, threw his head back and laughed the unstained laugh of the pure and pious as I whipped my arms away from his daughters, dumped my beer in the nearby trash can and stepped on my cigarette.

I expected him to order me to run laps but he just kept laughing until tears were streaming down his face.

And yes, I let the entire family enter through the exit.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

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