Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Day the Music Died

One of the problems with getting old is that friends you have known for fifty years or more start to die off.  Those who have smoked for most of their lives get to go to the front of that unfortunate line.  So it was with a man who was a big part of my life for a lot of years.

In 1968 I was a junior in college.  I had been playing the drums for about three years and was really caught up in the excitement of it.  Starting with a local garage band called the "Destinies", we were a completely typical kid band who played the basic rock and roll songs of the day.  We rarely earned any money for our efforts, but I would have crawled through broken glass just for the chance to play.  It was like a fire that burned inside of me and refused to be quenched.  That basic rock and roll was fun but I felt the drive to play something more creative.  It did not require watching too many jazz performances on a show presented by what is now Public Broadcasting, to realize that jazz was the creative outlet I was yearning for.

I was home on a weekend when my mother showed me an ad in the Uniontown, PA newspaper, telling that there was a Saturday afternoon jam session at a bar in Uniontown.  Dressed in my best 'hipster' black turtleneck sweater and burgundy blazer, I set off to see what a 'jam session' was actually like.  I finally located the club and made my way in.  On the stage was a beat up old drum set and what appeared to be a spinet piano.  Anyone who has seen the back of a spinet piano knows that it looks more like a shipping crate than a musical instrument.  I would later learn that the 'piano' was actually a Hammond M-3 spinet organ.

I sat at the bar and drank my beer while trying hard to be inconspicuous, no easy job as the sole white face in the place.  Shortly, a boy who appeared to be about high school age entered the club leading an obviously blind guy about my age.  That was the first time I saw Bobby Reed.  After some adjustments and sound checks, Bobby took the stage with his young drummer.  He kicked off the set with a tune called "Green Onions", originally recorded by Booker T and the MG's.  I could not believe my ears.  The club was filled with an amazingly full sound of lead, rhythm, and bass, every bit a duplicate of the recorded song.  The young drummer was tentative, struggling to keep up and sounding like he had been playing for only a few weeks.  But the song, dominated by the full Hammond organ sound, was like nothing I had ever heard in a live performance.  After the first three songs, I was hopelessly hooked.  THIS was the jazz I had been seeking and never expected to find.  I wanted to be a part of Bobby's music SO desperately, but I could hardly go charging up onto the stage and throw his struggling drummer out no matter how badly I wanted to do just that.  After six or eight songs, it became evident that there were no other musicians in the club.   At the end of a song, I went up to the stage and introduced myself, asking if I could sit in for a few songs.

"Sit in" typically consists of three songs:  One very basic song so that the leader can evaluate your skill level; a second more challenging song; and a third, either a killer song to show off your ability (if the leader determines that you have ability), or a mushball song to get you off the stage without too much more embarrassment (if you had no ability).  When we hit the second song, the magic was there.  The song had texture and punctuation, volume changes, and a perfect ending.  The third song was a Jimmy Smith jazz organ tune that I was familiar with and knew well.  It was like musical sex!  Even with 'pingy' cymbals and untuned drums the song was splendid.  As difficult as it was to leave, I thanked both of them and left the stage.  I was completely stunned by Bob's ability.  I knew that there were masters of the instrument but I would never have expected to find one in Uniontown, PA.

That was the start of a great friendship.  Bob called me several times and we played engagements when I was not at school.  By December of 1969 I was finished with school and ready to pursue my passion full time.  Bob had a surprise for me in the form of his brand new Hammond B-3 organ with two Leslie speakers.

Hammond B-3 and Leslie Speakers

I had never seen such a beast!  It weighed about 150 pounds, but it made the most incredible music in the hands of Bobby Reed.  Now we had become furniture movers who played music.  We started out playing 5 nights a week at a club in Everson, PA.  That lasted several months before it finished, but it gave us the chance to polish our music.  Like any partnership, the success of the product depends upon the strengths of one partner offsetting the weakness of the other.  And a most splendid product we did produce.  We offered a variety of music ranging from schmaltzy dance music to hard driving organ jazz.  As you might imagine, two young men following a shared passion preferred the jazz as a medium to show off our talents.  I never ceased to be in awe of his ability.  Night after night I would sit behind him, listening to the magic he created.  Every time he would take a song to a crescendo, I would wonder where he could possibly go from there.  But he never failed to pull up some key change or chord run that would take the music to yet another level.  What a privilege it was so spend so much time watching pure genius at work. 

Our music put us on both sides of a racial divide.  We would sit and play 'whiter than white' country and dance music for one show, then pack up and head for what was commonly called the "chittlin' circuit".  There we were free to express our real passion with organ jazz played at the volume we wanted to one appreciative audience after the other. 

For the next seven years we were a traveling show, hauling that heavy hardware from town to town, club to club.  It was during those long drives in a rusted-out old pickup truck that I really got to know Bob.  Despite his limited education, I found that Bob had an inquisitive mind that absorbed information like a sponge.  Hour after hour was spent in conversations suitable for a graduate level round table discussion.  Bob loved philosophy, although I doubt he recognized it as such, but he also enjoyed history, sociology, physics, geography, and several other topics.  More often than I cared to admit he would better me with, "If that is true, then why is...?", leaving me without a solid answer.  Our times together were so much more than work or performance.

In 1974  two eventful things happened.  One was I got married to a woman who hated my music and everything associated with it (I can't explain why I married her either), and the other was that we met a singer named Bobby Nicholas, whom we called Robert to avoid confusion.   The weakest part of our performance was singing.   Bobby Reed tried singing and did what he could, because I had nothing to offer.  If Bob and I completed each other musically, then Bobby Nicholas opened an additional dimension musically.  He had a deep, mellow voice and a stage presence that brought sorely needed polish and excitement to us.  After  Robert joined us things started to take off.  We landed a contract with Crown America Corporation to play two weeks, six nights a week rotating among their Inns in Uniontown, Indiana, PA, Johnstown, PA, and Cumberland, MD.  That was a problem for me since I had a day job and could only play on the weekends.  Fortunately, the two Bobs were able to find a fill-in for the week nights when I could not make it.

In the mid seventies something called "Disco" was sweeping the country.  With that style of music came the rise of the "DJ", one individual with a stock of records and tapes (later CD's) who could provide an evening's entertainment at a fraction of the cost of live music.  As the DJ market expanded and more people entered it, the market for live music shrank dramatically.  What had been a steady source of, at least, weekend work all but dried up.  With little work out there, Bob did what he could to earn a living by working with other bands.  When he did call me with a job, my (then) wife was quick to berate me for leaving my family to run off to some sleazy dive.  Eventually she won, and Bobby Reed and I parted ways.  In the following years I played with a few pickup bands, did some amateur theater pit bands, and played with a college jazz ensemble.  The playing was very infrequent and eventually the lack of practice cost me my skills.  The flame of passion gradually went out, extinguished by the cold hand of reality. In March of 2009, the treasured drum set that had been so much a part of me, was donated to the Pennsylvania School for the Blind.

It would be 35 years before I would see my friend again. 

A mutual acquaintance had been on a job with Bob and Bob asked if he knew me.  That acquaintance relayed Bob's message to me, telling me that Bob was playing one night a week at one of our old haunts from 35 years ago, the Holiday Inn in Uniontown.  Now with my second wife and packing a lot more pounds from the last time he saw me, I finally got to see Bob again.  As if all those years had not existed, two old men approaching Medicare age renewed the friendship they had when the heat of musical passion drove their lives.  Gone was the massive B-3 and Leslie cabinet speakers, victims of obsolesce and replaced by an electronic keyboard that could create the same sound and dozens more at a fraction of the size and weight.  All the skill was still there, his hands apparently free of arthritis, injury, or indications of old age.  He now worked with two new players, a very talented saxophone player and a drummer who made me wish I was him.

Bobby Reed at Christian Klay Winery

Bobby Reed worked hard to become the self-taught master of a complex and difficult instrument.  He spent his youth learning and practicing, ever improving and honing his God-given ability.  He taught himself to arrange music and to record music.  He was an amazing talent who never really knew how great he was.  He used to send me musical cuts from other bands and tell me to listen to the organ parts.  He would be so impressed with other players without ever realizing that he was already much better than that player ever would be.  I wanted to scream at him, "YOU ARE BETTER THAN HIM!", but he would not have listened anyway.   It was like super-ego in reverse.

Music defined him and he became an icon in the local music scene.  The problem was that the local music scene was constantly shrinking.   It's very frustrating when you are the absolute best at something that few people care about.  As Bob's audience continued to shrink, his passion also began to wane.  He battled depression, especially in the cold winter months when he could not even go outside.

We had moved to South Carolina in 2016 but I was still able to talk to Bob regularly.  We were so far separated that there was honestly little for us to talk about.  I think he just needed to be able to reach back and grasp something from those glory years so long ago.  To be honest, I think I needed the same thing.  On February 16, 2018 Bob sent me an email followed by a telephone call.  For a blind man, Bob was really good with email.  His typing skills were surprising, with very few typos.  The gist of the email was that, in the course of diagnosing ongoing breathing problems, they had found a tumor in Bob's lung that was threatening to shut off the blood flow through his lungs.  The doctors had installed a treatment port in his chest.  When he called me, just before going into the hospital, I could hardly understand his raspy and broken speech.  His last words to me were, "I'll tell you more about it when I come home".

He was supposed to come home.  He was supposed to get out of the hospital where I could visit him and we could reminisce about our shared years.  Instead, he never came home.  His Sister-in-Law Suzie was really good about keeping us advised about his condition, but apparently it started off bad and went downhill from there.  On March 14, 2018  Robert D. Reed died from the effects of lung cancer at age 69.    The Day the Music Died.

Saturday, March 5, 2016


When you get to be as old as I am, the loss of old friends becomes an unwelcomed inevitability that we simply have to face.  Illness and accident can cut short a promising life without rhyme or reason leaving us aghast at the unfairness.  But not all friends are human or animal, some are mechanical. 
In the fall of 1963 my new friend 824P78741 rolled off  the Pontiac assembly line in Pontiac, Michigan, all shined up and frisky, oozing that “new car smell”, and eager to meet the world.  It was put on a truck and hauled to Uniontown, PA as one of many new 1964 models intended to lure buyers into the dealer showrooms with their irresistible appeal. Sporting a huge (for the time) V-8 engine, four speed transmission, bucket seats, and the very important but optional AM radio, 824P78741 was a young man’s dream.  In January of 1964 began the union of man and machine that would define both for many years to come.  The guttural roar of tuned exhaust pipes coupled with clouds of black tire smoke were frequently the result of teenaged adrenalin and testosterone in charge of lots of horsepower.  Our bond would see us traveling from the Canadian border and Midwestern US to Southern Mexico and back again.

Life has a way of replacing adventure with the mundane and so it would come to pass.  824P78741 gradually settled down to become student transportation and, a few years thereafter, a daily driver between work and home.

Just as life takes a toll on people, years of wear take a toll upon machinery.  The miles piled up and up, along the way suffering traffic accidents and the ravages of rain, snow and road salt.  When combined, they reduced that which had been glamorous and enviable into a beat up, rusting, 15 year old car which, although mechanically sound, could no longer resist the rain that poured freely into the trunk and rear seat through gaping holes that no local mechanic seemed to have the skills to repair.  Despite several repair attempts, it eventually became obvious that 824P78741 was no longer road worthy.  Thus began a 27 year period of exile during which 824P78741 sat collecting dust as a catch all, in a garage out of the weather.

We all make emotional decisions in life.  Logic and common sense would clearly dictate that it was time for 824P78741 to be hauled off to the scrap yard to be dismantled with useable parts recycled and the carcass shredded and melted down to become a fresh new car or some other utilitarian product.  Somehow emotions kick in and that bond between man and machine will simply not go away.  This was my old friend with whom I had been through good and bad.  My old friend who had garnered me so much attention when shiny and new. The friend who had hauled me and my human friends to exciting adventures.  The friend that started when I begged it to and dug in on icy turns. The same friend who dutifully hauled me back and forth to college and then to work.  The one who sat outside in the rain and snow while I was indoors and warm.  Now old, worn, and  rusted, would it really be fair to send 824P78741 off to be butchered and annihilated?  The head say yes but the heart says no.  Damned useless heart anyway.

824P78741 was 42 years old when it met Murphy in Dover, Ohio. It creaked and squeaked as it drifted down off the tilt bed truck, disgorging an unwelcomed cargo of mice all over Murphy’s parking lot.  Rusted, reeking of mold, and non-functional, it had to be among the greatest challenges that Murphy had ever undertaken.  During the next year and a half, the Sorcerer Murphy found, prepared, then installed replacement parts from all over the country.  As a consequence of his magic, Murphy also guaranteed that any thoughts I may have had of ever owning a beach front condo were a flight of my imagination.  

From the ashes arose the fiery Phoenix, restored to its original glory and beyond.  824P78741 was now silver with a mirror-like shine, new chrome wheels, wide tires, refinished chrome, improved brakes, and an engine that rumbled with renewed power.  My friend was back, but now better looking, more powerful, and vastly improved. 

The relationship began all over again, albeit at a much more sedate level.  Driving was done with extreme care and limited to travel to and from car shows and exhibition events.  Tire spinning was rare and done in a controlled manner.  Full power bursts were limited to on ramps and only when necessary.  In short, 824P78741 had become a crown jewel and was treated accordingly.
For years I had harbored a dream.  As I had aged, so had the high school classmates who had been as much a part of my youth as was 824P78741.  We had already lost several, but many of those who remained were committed to attend our 50th class reunion.  My dream was to gather as many of them as possible for a photograph with 824P78741.  One of the highlights of my life was a sunny Saturday in October of 2014 when I was able to get the majority of my classmates together for what I call “The class of 1964”.  That event would prove to be the last public appearance for 824P78741. 

In 2015, Mrs. Randall and I relocated to South Carolina, but my friend 824P78741 did not make the journey.  The passing years force a man to consider his own mortality and the consequences of his death.  As far as 824P78741 and I were concerned, instead of two reasonably contemporary buddies enjoying life and adventures together, I found myself as a 68 year old man with an 8 year old pristine friend.  If I were suddenly to assume room temperature, what would become of my friend?  The burden of what to do with 824P78741 would fall upon Mrs. Randall or perhaps upon offspring of Randall, none of whom were deserving of such punishment nor were they qualified to manage 824P78741.  Life had indeed pushed me into a corner and handed me a bucket of crap.  After several months of agonizing internal debate, the gut-wrenching but necessary choice was made.
 There’s an old saying that, “If you love something, set it free.”  The reality is  that I had created something that is a beautiful piece of history deserving to live on well after I am gone.  To accomplish that, it is necessary that 824P78741 be passed on to someone else who will treat it with the care and respect that it is due.  After several unsuccessful months of attempting to find someone who met those requirements, I had 824P78741 shipped to Greensboro, North Carolina to the Greensboro Classic Car Auction.  On March 4, 2016, 824P78741 quietly slipped away from me and into the ownership of Southern Motors of Clarkston, Michigan.  The guys from Southern Motors are car people who will treat 824P78741 with respect and that, after all, was about as much as I could do. One of the great ironies is that Clarkson is less than ten miles from Pontiac, Michigan where 824P78741 was created.
It hurt me to let my friend go, but it was the right thing to do.  We had 52 years together but the reality is that 824P78741 will continue to be a beautiful piece of automotive art long after I am dead and forgotten.  So long my old friend, may the years and the miles be kind to you.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Having grown up in the greater Ohio Valley of the northeast, I always believed that heavy cloud cover on the verge of rain was the normal weather forecast.  Daily weather ranging from 'partly cloudy' to 'mostly cloudy' with the 'possibility of thunder showers' was as predictable as sunshine in Southern California.  It was not until I began to travel that I became aware that such gloomy weather was not the norm for most of the nation.  Because of the coloration projected by the sun when it did penetrate the clouds, I began to refer to the dark cloud conditions as 'The Grey'. A look skyward would be met by a mass of more or less angry clouds that gave the sky a grey cast.  After visiting more distant areas of the U.S.A., I came to realize that 'the grey' was not universal and that sunshine through a clear blue sky with occasional puffs of fluffy white clouds was more the norm.  After my final release from the slave ship of employment, my next focus became escaping 'the grey'.
Anyone who has followed my scribblings knows that my holy grail search for a place to live would take me to a small coastal fishing village, largely undiscovered by tourists, where the bars open early to colorful characters who exchange stories while sipping on frozen alcoholic creations.  Ideally, such a place would have an uncrowded stretch of sandy beach with warm water and palm trees but, above all, clear blue skies.

Inertia being what it is, it took a while to locate some likely candidates.  Mrs. Randall, being a 'snow queen' from northwestern PA where they get about twelve feet of snow per year, quickly let it be known that coastal areas are too hot and humid for her, and any place vulnerable to hurricanes was instantly out.  For as much as that threw water on my dream, the reality was that we could neither afford decent housing in a coastal area nor the insurance coverage such a house would require.  But that did not mean we had to be hundreds of miles from the beach.  After extensive research, we began to look seriously at the Charleston, South Carolina area.

During the first week of December, 2014, we made the trip to Summerville, SC to look at houses.  Immediately we were taken by the area, primarily that it was 55 degrees with a perfect blue sky.  We laughed at the locals who were bundled up in heavy jackets while we were comfortable in short  sleeved shirts.  The area appeared lush with abundant landscaping and some plants still blooming.  Lawns were green and free of snow and ice, a far cry from back home where nothing would grow for another four months.  And there were palm trees!  A wide variety of palm trees in yards, parks, shopping centers, parking lots, and just lining streets and roads about the area.  There is  something magical about palm trees to me.  They represent sun and warmth, and a more relaxed lifestyle free of heavy clothing and absent that deep chill that penetrates into your body until your joints feel stiff and painful.  It was as if heavy chains had been removed from my spirit.

During that week, the evenings were filled with searching the real estate listings for potential homes, then days were spent visiting those houses.  Some looked good in photographs but were disasters in reality.  Some were so bad that we did not even get out of the car, instead choosing to drive by and off to the next house.  Others were nice houses but located in questionable areas.  Our real estate agent was a great help, getting us into houses that we wanted to see more closely. Soon all the houses we saw started to blend together making it hard to remember which we liked and which we did not.  As it grew near our time to return north, we began to feel as if another trip south would be required before we would find a house.  Then suddenly it appeared!  A brand new listing in a neighborhood we liked.  Three bedrooms, two car garage, new roof, newer heating and cooling system, everything but a partridge in a pear tree.  And it had Mrs. Randall's dream refrigerator; a French-doored monster with lots of cubic feet and the freezer on the bottom.  Once she saw that, the rest of the house could have been a burned-out meth lab so long as she got that refrigerator.  The price was higher than we had intended but was still comfortably below the phenomenal amount for which we had pre-qualified.  We were hooked.

Our offer (including the demand for the refrigerator) was accepted and suddenly we were homeowners.  The emotions that go along with that status were a bit of whiplash by  themselves.  Whereas we had been focused upon finding a house, almost instantly we had to become focused upon the process of selling the existing house, moving all of our belongings, and the financial and logistical requirements that went with it.  Immediately we were mentally numb wondering what kind of a monster we had just unleashed.

We found the answer to be "one step at a time".  With the target date for closing set, we started by contacting a real estate agent to list the northern house and assembling all of the paperwork required.  That was followed shortly by contacting a moving company where we had the pleasant surprise that they would take both motorcycles for a modest sum in addition to that of moving our 'stuff'.  That alone solved a serious problem for us that could have included driving motorcycles 600 miles in February, a frightening prospect.  The next step was to sort through what 'stuff' would make the trip south and what would go to Goodwill, recycling, or garbage.  Then started the packing, a spiraling process that allowed unused things to be packed immediately, followed, in turn, by things as they became no longer needed for daily use.  Eventually that left us with boxes and plastic totes stacked floor to ceiling, and virtually empty closets, drawers, etc.  The last of the packing took place the evening before the movers were due to pack glassware, dishes, and the more fragile things that we did not trust ourselves to pack.  As hand truck after hand truck of boxes and totes went out to the huge truck to join our furniture and other belongings, the house became increasing empty until the 'OMG factor' began to kick in.  Areas of walls and floor that had not seen light in generations were exposed along with  their accumulated dust.  We spent our last evening in that house cleaning walls and floors while marveling at the emptiness of it all.  The next day was spent in a 10 hour drive.

The closing was well managed by an experienced attorney who made the boring process feel lively and personal.  After a couple of trips to utility offices, we unlocked and opened the door to our new (very empty) house, taking in the few belongings we could take in a packed car.  Sleeping on the floor on an inflatable bed might be cool as a kid but it was very trying as an adult.  Our furniture could not arrive soon enough.

Days were spent cleaning and painting while evenings were largely a 'crash and burn' situation. We did explore a bit, discovering our new surroundings and confirming that the intense traffic we had encountered during previous visits was the rule rather than the exception. Part of the price of escaping the grey was the large number of others who were there to do the same.

Once our furniture arrived and was in place, our house began to feel like a home.  After several days on the floor, sleeping in a real bed was blissful.  It was SO nice to roll out and put legs DOWN onto the floor rather than struggling to get UP from the floor.  With our furniture came our motorcycles, and the opportunity to explore.  There we were wearing jeans, tee shirts, and vests cruising happily while the locals bundled up against the "chilling" 50 degree temperatures.  And the sky was BLUE!  A beautiful powder blue with a few fluffy white clouds as far as the eye could see.  It actually took a while to get over the mindset that we would soon have to return to 'the grey', but gradually we adapted to the comfort of mild temperatures and having a sky that looked as a sky should.

Among the many discoveries we have made was a REAL beach town.  Charleston has many miles of beautiful beach, but the majority has been gobbled up by developers who build hotels and private homes that lock away large tracts of beach, reserving it for the wealthy and those with enough money to rent a beach house by the week.  The remainder of us, the great unwashed, can purchase yearly passes to use a few small county beach parks, hoping we can get there early enough to beat to rush and bringing sufficient coins to feed the ever-hungry parking meters.  To say this was a disappointment would be a huge understatement.  But, with research and exploration, we found a beach town less than an hour away.  By and large it has resisted the curse of moneyed yuppies and remains a small beach town with no big hotels, no chain restaurants, free parking, and a casual lifestyle reminiscent of years gone by.  Several days a week the shrimp boats go out to trawl just offshore.  They return with catches of shrimp, part of which go to the local bars and restaurants to be served in a mind boggling number of dishes where they are steamed, deep fried, broiled, baked, sautéed, flambéed, and, for the adventurous, served raw.  Shrimp are a culinary building block upon which much of the local cuisine is built.  Along with flounder, the local ocean fish, seafood is a sizeable chunk of the menu.  Add to that local barbeque in pork, beef, or chicken and some creative burgers, and a trip to a seaside restaurant becomes an adventure.

Recognizing that there is no  'free lunch', the best beach access is through a state park where, yes, we did have to pay for an annual pass.  But the amount is nominal and gains us abundant free parking, rest rooms, and a changing area, all of which are cleaned regularly and well-maintained. Blessing of blessings, the water is warm.  Usually mid 80's and very easy to get into and remain as long as desired.  At first glance I was reminded of a trip to Maine where we introduced our children to the Atlantic Ocean.  The water was bone-chilling cold and even the most enthusiastic child was soon dashing out of the water with chattering teeth and a blue hue.  Fortunately, after one plunge, we discovered that this was NOT Maine.


Even the drive to this place is pleasant. Unlike the northeast, where utility companies cut back trees to four foot high stumps, in South Carolina there is a tree called a "live oak" that tends to grow out and arch over the smaller roadways.  The result is roadways with shady "tunnels" that provide very welcomed cool oases from the baking sun of the southern summer.  A motorcycle is a delightful way to travel, offering abundant breeze, but still these cool zones are appreciated.  Most of the secondary roads, especially those near the old plantations are this way, and many carry the Spanish moss seen in films about the South.
Suffice it to say, in the six months we have lived here, South Carolina offers much that is different, but the most welcomed of these differences is not having to face "the grey" with each new day.

Friday, November 22, 2013

That Blue Time of Year

 is late November of 2013, that time of year when the short days and chilling temperatures bring an end to motorcycle riding for all save the very most hardcore riders in the north.  I have an expression I use that goes, "You can tell hardcore riders because their body hair grows through their long underwear".  For as much as I try to be 'hardcore', 30 degree temperatures soak in far too deeply and 20 degree temperatures are painful.  As a result, it is with regret that the great 'Blue Beast' gets dosed with fuel stabilizer, has its battery removed and put on trickle charge, and gets covered for winter hibernation in the storage unit.
              I am now and have been, for what seems an eternity, a motorcycle rider.  Back in 1965,  from the first time I sat on the back of a classmate’s Honda 350 Super Hawk, helmetless and clinging desperately to the driver to avoid slipping off of the back of the seat, I was hooked.  Until you have experienced the freedom of motorcycle travel, it is difficult to understand the addiction.  And although it was several years before I was able to get my first motorcycle, the desire for one never left me.
           In 1971, my first real pay check went to help pay for a new four cylinder, 75 horsepower, 600 pound beauty with chrome fenders and exhaust pipes that wrapped like chrome snakes beneath the frame of the machine.  Over the next 20 something years I logged 15,000 miles of bug-eating while experiencing lead butt, unexpected  rain storms, clueless drivers, flat tires, and a myriad of other unpleasantness without ever losing the enthusiasm for the ride.  Eventually my ol’ hoss surrendered to deterioration and antiquation, becoming resigned to a dusty corner of the garage because I didn’t have the heart to scrap it.
            There is an exhilaration that goes with feeling the warm, fresh air against your skin.  Going from a warm hilltop to a chilly, fog-laden valley sends a tingle through your body that is hard to explain.  On the breeze are the scents of mint, blossoms, pine and other natural aromas, admittedly accompanied by shots of road kill, diesel, and dairy farm.  But it is the endless variety that makes the journey colorful.  Those who travel in cars (cagers), breathing chilled, recycled air and listening to artificial sounds are truly missing the depth of experience that is out there for the taking.
             One of the few benefits of age is that mortgages get paid off, children complete their education and get jobs, weddings get paid off, and finally the big house is sold to be replaced by a smaller, more efficient, and less tax-burdensome accommodation.  When you stop writing checks to everyone else, you get to buy toys.  Nice, comfortable, sexy toys that almost make getting older worthwhile. As my years wind toward their inevitable end, I include among my toys a machine that is as powerful, luxurious, and high tech as the mind of man can create.  I can now travel many miles over many hours in comfort, yet still experience the sensory delights that the outdoors has to offer.   In the spring of 2010, enter the 'Blue Beast'; a 1000 pound machine with sleek lines, frightening power, extraordinary luxury, and as much high tech as I cared to pay for.  Otherwise known as a Victory Vision Tour.

          From the time the 'beast' arrived on scene, Mrs. Randall displayed her characteristic curiosity.  Although she remained 'hands off' while I made the transition from a 600 pound UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) to my  frighteningly large but gloriously American touring bike, I could see that spark in her eyes.  Once I had reached the point where I could relax in the saddle, enjoy the ride, and had learned to control the terror of low speed turns, she was amenable to try riding on it.  This was no small leap for someone who had never, ever been on a motorcycle before.
          It took a while to finalize the 'getting on' and 'getting off' procedures and for us to have that little talk that all drivers have with new passengers.  Her one word answers clearly displayed her 'heart-in-throat' state of mind as we prepared for our maiden voyage together.  Off we went, through city streets to suburban roads and finally onto the interstate highway.  I cruised casually, trying to reassure the absolutely rigid person on the back, whose fingernail imprints still remain in the passenger handgrips, that she might actually survive her first experience as a 'mouse among elephants'.  It took several outings, but eventually she began to relax as evidenced by the beginning of a steady flow of questions about riding practices, state laws, safety procedures, etc.  Once she asked to sit in the front seat, I knew she was hooked.
          She looked rather small in the front seat as she explored the basic brake, clutch, and throttle controls.  It took a while to go through all the gauges, symbols, lights, communications systems, cruise control, etc., but I could tell that her curiosity was at full speed.  Once she started the engine and twisted the throttle, there was that smile that said to me, "I want one". 
          I would have loved to take her out to an open field where she could dump it a few times before she finally learned to control the beast, but there was a problem.  When you sit in the saddle and your feet do not touch the ground, that may work on horseback but it is a serious problem on a motorcycle.  So for the next year and a half, Mrs. Randall rode shotgun while her sponge-like mind absorbed every bit of motorcycle information she could get to.
          I have learned, in my years, that women who are self-reliant and have been so for a period of time usually have a problem entrusting their safety and well-being to someone else.  A woman who has made her own way in life is likely to be a bit reticent to jump on the back of a motorcycle and entrust her life to a man just because, "he looks so sexy in leather".  They tend to have thoughts of self-preservation when a momentary lapse in his judgment could result in an artwork of steel and fiberglass becoming the most expensive hood ornament ever attached to a Mack truck, while the driver and passenger are reduced to streaks of color and pieces of texture between the skid marks on an otherwise bland section of pavement.  I guess it is kind of a control thing.  Basically, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy".
          Then it showed up!  Like money in the mail, like a gift from Heaven, a solution to the conundrum.  Something called the Can Am Spyder, a three-wheeled motorcycle that looked more snow mobile than motorcycle.  A nifty bike with all the bells and whistles of a high tech touring bike, plenty of power, a semi-automatic transmission, tons of storage, and a design so stable that, unless you back it over a hill, it will not upset. It was love at first sight.
           From that point, the search was on.    She did computer  research and she asked a million questions; we followed Spyder drivers into gas stations and shopping malls and she asked a million questions; we visited  a dealer and she asked a million questions, I think you get the point.  Once she sat on one and put her hands on the controls, the search was over.  We went to the closest dealer (where she asked a million questions), and we took one for a test drive.  Because Mrs. Randall did not have a motorcycle license, I had to drive.  We had barely started down the country road before her head was beside mine watching every movement I made.  When we approached a church with a large empty parking lot, the commands started.
          "Pull in there, right in the middle."
          "OK."  We stopped in the middle of the lot.
          "Get off, I want to drive this thing."
          "But you have no license."
          "(Expletive deleted)  Get off!"
          "OK."  I got off and stood beside her as she slid into the driver's seat.  Apparently I answered her questions adequately just before she took off circling the parking lot, stopping, starting, backing up, shifting, and playing with some of the controls.  It was a match made in Heaven.  We returned to the dealer with yet another million questions.
          Any married couple is comprised of two individuals.  Two individuals with different likes and dislikes, different ideas, different approaches to life, etc., and it takes a lot of compromise to hold the relationship together.  Too often, in order to avoid the conflict or compromise, they end up with his chair and her chair in front of the television where they fight over the remote.  One of the best things that can happen is a shared passion that makes it a pleasure to do something together that you both enjoy.  Something that you do not need a reason to do, just an excuse.  So it is in the Randall household. 
          This joint passion has been the stimulus for almost 30,000 miles of riding in two years.  Although we have yet to start those month-long trips across the country and exploring our neighbors north and south, they are in the works.  Multi-day and week-long trips have been the source of many shared experiences and lots of wonderful memories.  Even after two years, we cannot wait for survivable temperatures free of snow or rain to get the rides out and launch.
             But this has become that blue time of year.  When the rides go into storage and we have to be satisfied driving the cage through slushy and snow covered roads.  When we have only the memories accumulated during the warm months to sustain us until the warm weather returns.  I just hope those are sufficient to keep peace in the household because she gets REALLY grumpy while sitting in front of the television with a helmet on and regularly looking through the window to see if the snow has melted.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012



Finally, after a year's absence, I'm back to post a story about an event worthy of posting. It has been a quiet year with minimal long distance travel but lots of local jaunts.  One of these was a trip to the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival.

 With my cynic's mind completely engaged, I was prepared to roll my eyes at what I perceived would be "Comic-Con" for those with a medieval fetish.  And, to a degree, I found what I expected to find.  Large men with red beards dressed in tights, plastic armor, carrying wooden axes, and wearing horned helmets. Slender young women with very long hair dressed as princesses complete with pointy hats with flowing scarves. My personal favorite, middle aged matrons in push-up gowns, their abundant breasts lifted to new heights and proudly displaying the accomplishment. Among the notables, a random assortment of would-be knights, royalty, jesters, minstrels, and a lot of nondescript characters whose intended purpose was known only to them. It must be said that the attendees became a large part of the atmosphere, assuming personae that presented to the world a deeply held fantasy brought to life as they wandered among the vendors of medieval clothing, armaments, jewelry, crafts, and recognizable food with strange names. I can assure you that pulled pork and lemonade served by a tavern wench tastes surprisingly similar to that served at any neighborhood barbecue place, the difference being several dollars and a peek at some attractive cleavage.

There were numerous stage shows, many that we attended and were greatly entertained by vastly better than expected performances.  We saw an escape artist who could open his handcuffs, shed his chains, and then dislocate his shoulders (to the gasps and groans of the audience) to escape a straight jacket.  He was followed by an energetic group of musicians who played ethnic music from several European countries while toasting Ireland with generous swigs of grog between tunes. Then came the "Washing Wenches", a pair of extraordinarily bawdy young ladies with several blacked out teeth, who mercilessly teased the men in the audience with their naughty antics, while leaving the wives laughing until tears ran down their cheeks.  That show alone was worth the rather considerable price of admission to the festival.
 Then came the demonstrations of horseback skills using lances, swords, and maces upon numerous defenseless melons and cabbages. Where ARE the vegetable rights groups these days anyway?

The fire-eater awed the assembled with bursts of flame into the sky and skillful juggling of burning torches. He was followed by a singing duo who specialized in pirate songs and 'punnery'. Exit the pirates in favor of two 'Tavern Wenches'.  Let me state that I have become a serious fan of 'wenches', their bawdy humor, and the soft, swelling cleavage of their young bosoms, a treat to aging eyes.  Their 'not child friendly' announcement before the show sent many parents scurrying with their impressionable youngsters. As it turned out, both the humor and the antics of two young wenches in search of male companionship were funny but ever tasteful. 
Still wearing a smile from our close encounter with two lusty wenches, we made our way up the hill for the scheduled performance of "Cast in Bronze", having no idea what the show entailed.  We joined the growing crowd in the already standing room only area of the performance.  Before us was a large wheeled 'goose neck' trailer with a steel framework that held thirty five brass church bells of varying sizes.  Connected to the clapper of each bell was a cable that ran through pulleys to connect to an odd keyboard. Imagine a piano keyboard with only white keys.  The keys are longer and physically larger than those of a piano and there appear to be only about three octaves. At the front of the keyboard rises a vertical face with smaller black keys projecting out at six to eight inches above the white keys. At floor level is a pedal board like that of an organ, but designed such that the player pushes down on a step to activate the pedal.  A very curious and unusual device that is called a Carillon.  At the hour of the performance, an oddly dressed figure stepped from the shadows and took his place on the bench at the keyboard. I would learn later that his name is Frank DellaPenna.  He is dressed head to foot in a black spandex bodysuit, his face covered by a strange, bird-like bronze mask, and  his feet in heavy combat boots. He looked more ninja than musician.  My first thoughts were of the "Phantom of the Opera", the master musician who played the huge pipe organ in the popular Andrew Lloyd Weber show. As he took his seat, the accompanying music started and my 'new and different phantom' dramatically raised his arms, scanned the audience, and a fun day became magical.

Those of you who follow my ramblings know that I have a bit of a passion for quality music and an admiration for those with the skill to perform it.  Whether drummer, organist, pianist, guitar player, bassist, no matter the instrument, it is the ability to make the difficult appear easy and create magnificent music seemingly  without effort. Watching and listening to the master of an instrument weave his or her musical web is inspiring to me.

At first sight I had thought that this would be something akin to the old 'Swiss bell ringer' groups where three or more people dressed in silly Swiss costumes tinkled out a basic song by ringing the appropriate bell at the appropriate time.  Talk about being completely wrong!  As the first song started, there was a steady beat and a driving bass line gradually joined by a full arrangement of piano, horns, and strings. When my 'phantom' began to play the bells, the sound came together as a perfect audio recipe for excitement. I was swept away by the amazing musical ability and showmanship of a true master of the instrument.  With flying fists and feet, my 'phantom' created musical magic while casually glancing at the audience as if his instrument were playing itself.

 On this day, Frank DellaPenna captivated and thrilled his audience both with his music and with the flair and style he presents.  To you, dear reader, all I can say is, click and behold! The video is best viewed at full screen.

For more information about Cast in Bronze and Frank DellaPenna, please go to:


Friday, August 26, 2011

Attitude Adjustment Day

Those of you who suffer through my ramblings already know that I can be a smug son-of-a-bitch. I freely poke fun at the proclivities, mental slips, bad habits, and strange mannerisms of others with some serious attitude, although the attitude is usually couched in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Much of that has to do with my lengthy life experience and the subsequent feeling that I'm prepared for whatever life throws at me. Mentally I still believe my body is 30 years old and fully capable of complying with my demands. Well today, August 26, 2011, I got one serious attitude adjustment. I have watched numerous television shows about people who were placed in life or death circumstances, and invariably they say, "I though I was going to die." To me that sounded trite and overly dramatic until I said it today. Instantly it became honest, frightening, and not one bit dramatic.

Mrs. Randall and I have for several years put aside a couple of days during the summer for a kayak trip. While that may sound adventurous for the social security set, let me assure you that our choice of kayak trips is far from being an advertisement for Mountain Dew. Instead of ''white water' kayaking, we prefer to call it 'wimp water' kayaking. We do the same run on the Youghiogheny River, a very flat water class 1 stretch that is about 6 miles long and takes 3-4 hours to complete, most of the time spent simply drifting and enjoying the scenery. Having made the same trip so many times, our main concern is sunburn and hoping we don't have to pee during the trip. The rental company provides small, moulded plastic kayaks with those double ended paddles, life jackets, and transportation to the 'put-in' or launch area. We are on our own until we finish the journey, drag the boat out of the water at the rental place, and return all gear. With familiarity comes complacency.

We had to sign a release forms that promised that we would not abuse the equipment, would not drink alcohol during the trip, and would wear a life jacket while on the water. Any of you boaters who have worn a life jacket on a hot summer day know how incredible hot and sticky they become very quickly. So we signed and returned our forms, got on the bus, and away we went to the launch point 6 miles upstream.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Youghiogheny river, it is a senic river that is too shallow for motorized boats. In fact, most of it is so shallow that becoming hung up on the rocks is a common occurance. Having made the trip so many times, I was well aware of how shallow the river is and, with my smug attitude fully in force, considered a life jacket an unnecessary burden. As we exited the bus at the launch point, I grabbed a small life jacket that I could pack away behind the seat of my kayak and out of the way. Mrs Randall carefully selected a properly fitting life jacket which she adjusted and secured. She and I launched with the group but soon left them behind to escape the chattering families and noisy teenagers.

The first 4 miles were relatively uneventful. Both Mrs. Randall and I found ourselves aground on the rocks a few times, but since the water was 12" to 16" deep, it was no problem for me to climb out of my boat and pull Mrs. Randall free. We cruised along in the clear water occasionally seeing rather large fish swimming below us. We negotiated a few 'rapids', successfully avoiding the large rocks while occasionally getting splashed as we crashed through the 'monster' 8" waves. It was all so routine. We entered a large pool of quiet water with almost no current. We seemed to just sit, unless we paddled to keep moving. Then it happened.

From my education and years of work, I know a lot about things like 'center of gravity', 'overturning forces', and 'stabilizing forces'. I know not to stand up in a boat and would not do so. I don't even know how it happened. Without warning, my boat began to rock and suddenly rolled over plunging me into the river. Somehow this event had occurred in what is probably the deepest section of the Youghiogheny River. When I hit the water, my glasses came loose and left my face just as I grabbed them with my hand. I went down for the first time expecting to simply hit bottom at 4 or 5 feet and stand up very embarrassed. Instead I found myself sinking into an abyss that could have been 20 feet deep for all I knew. After the first six feet, the rest is academic. I fought my way to the surface, struggling hard to stay above the water. My boat (and life jacket) were now 6 to 8 feet away, and my efforts at swimming were accomplishing little. Try as I may, I could not seem to make progress toward my boat and I felt like I had concrete blocks on my feet. I was in serious trouble. Of those people who said, "I thought I was going to die", you can add my name to that list. I've heard people say that their lives flashed before their eyes during a life or death experience. Had I been sinking to the bottom, who knows, but while I was still breathing, my mind was working at warp speed trying to find a way to get to that boat and the life jacket. I was rapidly running out of breath and the strength to keep swimming was fading. Suddenly my capsized boat was right in front of me. I went under and brought my head up into the air pocket beneath the boat, trying to catch my breath and hold on to the shell to rest. I spun around and saw that my life jacket was gone, instantly assuming that it had fallen out and was floating downstream. I could tell that the air under the boat was quickly being used up and knew I had to move. If I could get the boat turned over, I could cling to it until help arrived.

Help came from an unlikely source. Mrs. Randall is a short gal of roughly my age who, like me, has put on entirely too many pounds. She is far from athletic and has not done any swimming since college phys ed where she learned the basics and eeked out a passing grade. She has an artificial knee and a touch of arthritis in other joints. It is a real effort for her to get into one of the small kayaks and even more effort to get out of one. When I came out from under my boat, Mrs. Randall was there to help me turn the boat over and to slam my life jacket on my hands. The child's life jacket I had chosen did little to support me, but it was enough to keep me from drowning. Together we clung to the flooded boat.

When she saw me go under, she paddled as closely as she could. Knowing that she could not easily get out of her boat, she chose to roll her boat over, draw up her legs, and kick her boat away. That push enabled her to shove my boat the last few feet so I could reach it. I don't know how or where she found my life jacket, but she actually saved my life. I have always consider myself to be her guardian and protector but, in this time of danger, it was her who saved me.

As we clung to the boat, two people in a canoe nearby saw what had happened and came to help. Still on the verge of panic as the flooded boat hovered near sinking, I could hear a female voice calmly offering reassurance and shouting instructions. I knew from the tone of her voice that she was a nurse, and I later found out that I was right.

While we clung to the boat, she and her son gathered up our paddles and Mrs. Randall's boat, taking them ashore. When they got to us, she gave me a second life jacket (adult size) and told both Mrs. Randall and I to swim to shore while she hauled our boat to the riverbank. Abandoning our flooded boat, Mrs. Randall backstroked toward shore. I hung on to the life jackets but all of my kicking gained me no progress toward shore. With help on scene, my concern turned to my brave, loving, almost non-swimming Mrs. Randall. Frightened by any number of potential scenarios, I called to her regularly while stuck in my watery limbo. Each time I heard her voice, she reassured me that she was making progress. Finally, to my great relief, I saw her reach the slippery, muddy shore, although she slipped and fell. Soon our rescuers were with her helping her to climb into the rocking canoe. Once Mrs. Randall was safe with our grounded boats and equipment, they came back and towed me to shore.

With well-practiced skills, our savior nurse calmed us and set about reassuring us that the danger was passed. She and her son sat patiently with us until she felt we were ready to again launch into the river, with me now wearing the adult sized life jacket that she carefully adjusted and securely snapped across my chest.

The remaining trip was one of physical discomfort. Without the life jacket to prop up the back of my seat, I leaned back much too far, leaving me the choice of either looking at the sky and not being able to paddle, or sitting forward to paddle until my abdominal muscles cramped. I'm sure that Mrs. Randall was equally uncomfortable, but she bravely paddled on. Finally two wet, exhausted, sunburned, pain-filled people mercifully reached the rental company where we returned everything and gratefully headed for the car.

And so it was, on that attitude adjustment day. A day when I learned of my own mortality, my own limitations, and my own vulnerability. It is a great ego inflater to be the strong and capable protector. To be the 'master of all you survey', not needing help from others and sneering at the weak and vulnerable. Life has a way of taking that self-important image and flushing it down the toilet, leaving us to face the reality of our own limitations and the true importance of others who chose to care for us as we are rather than as we picture ourselves.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

47 Years later

In late Summer of 1963, just before the start of the school year, pre-season practice began for the football team of our high school. Previous teams had done well, and this was our senior year and our chance to shine. The common backfield formation of the time was called the 'straight T', which saw the quarterback (who receives the ball from the center), up against the center of the line. 2 to 3 yards behind him was the fullback with the left and right halfbacks on either side of the fullback. To those with a knowledge of football, that probably sounds like 'leather helmet' stuff and that actually is pretty close. We were among the first teams to have face guards on our helmets, although often those were simply a single curved bar at about mouth level. Careful maintenance of facial contours was not a high priority in football at a time when, "It's a long way from your heart son", was the coach's standard response to injuries.

Of the backfield for our team, the quarterback was a largely untested junior who replaced a highly skilled and awarded senior who graduated the previous year. The left halfback was a senior, more experienced, very quick, and agile. The right halfback, also a senior, was the team's star player, captain of the team, and frequently referred to as, "the fastest white man in the Ohio Valley." Between them stood your most humble and obedient servant who acquired the position more as a matter of attrition than ability. But we practiced hard and carried high hopes for the future. The thinking was that, if the rest of us could do anything that would get our right halfback into the open, we had a chance to win. The first game of the season, and the first quarter of play saw our team captain fall with a devastating knee injury that would all but end his play for that year. The left halfback stepped up and made his best effort to fill the void, but found himself being hammered regularly by opponents who easily overwhelmed our less than stellar front line. The fullback was not much of a contributing factor save for the odd block or 'three yards and a cloud of dust' play. The season quickly became a disaster with a couple of high points and many lows.

The three seniors of the backfield became close friends through all of the social events of the year as well as numerous times spent simply wasting each other's time and laughing while doing it. The culmination of that relationship was a four week trip together into Mexico that included two weeks at a small University and a week in a rented apartment in glamorous Acapulco. In the interest of decorum, the details of that trip will be omitted while leaving the reader free to imagine the escapades of three 18 year olds loose in a nation with no age limit for drinking, gambling, or other vice-laden activities. Before that trip, one or more parents, while still questioning the wisdom of unleashing their offspring upon an unsuspecting and (previously) friendly nation, took pictures of the usual suspects standing in front of the six month old 1964 Pontiac GTO that would carry them on their journey.

That trip would generate a lifetime of memories for all three, who went on to college before losing track of each other. Life has a way of supplanting those early friendships, no matter how close, with things like careers, family, mortgages, and such. So, some how, some way, 47 years slid by in the wink of an eye, leaving a trail of jobs, marriages, children, relocations, divorces, and (as much as it pains me to admit) grandchildren.

The thing called 'Facebook' may be considered as a teenager's toy where the texting generation posts inane comments about meaningless happenings in their young lives. But sometimes it can be a miracle that enables a generation who grew up with rotary telephones, black and white television, and Mom being at home to reconnect to friends long lost to the four winds. After 47 years the 'backfield' was once again together. Certainly no longer able to even get into a football stance, let alone charge an opponent. Paunchy, balding, white haired, a bit frail, and seriously medicated, three geezers rekindled the spirit of their relationship with a couple days of 'laugh and scratch', revisiting old haunts, and even a visit to a local nudie bar. It's hard to really get into the spirit of a nudie bar when the girls are younger than your children and only a few years older than your grandchildren. Instead of admiring their lovely young bodies with lusty thoughts of sexual desire, we found ourselves trying to stay awake, wondering if the girls were warm enough, and if the wooden stage hurt their knees. A far cry from the trip to Acapulco where...I'll just leave it at that.

Those 18 year old hoodlums had somehow been transformed (seemingly overnight) into grandfathers with numerous medical ailments and failing memory cells. Young bodies that had once enthusiastically smashed headlong into an opponent now bore the scars of assorted surgeries and the pain of arthritic joints. No one can ever see themselves age. The face in the mirror (at least from our perspective) is the same as it was 30, 40, 50 years ago, and mentally we're all still waiting for summer vacation at the end of the school year. But when seen through the prisim of old friends, suddenly the changes become evident. Physically we can never be the same. Those hard young bodies are long gone, victims of the process of establishing our identities in life. But the spirit of friendship and the remaining memories of times and people now gone, remain as the rock to which we cling while life attempts to sweep us away to join the dust of ages. And after a couple days with two other old farts, I can tell you, we're clinging pretty good.

In an ironic turn of events, the unsung hero of that near-miss international incident from 1964 has survived much better than its occupants. After 15 years of abuse, road salt, and neglect followed by 30 years sitting in a barn where the mice turned it into Club Med for rodents, the 1964 GTO has been restored into a head-turning, award winning, hearthrob. If they could just do that for people, sigh.