Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I've surrendered!

I finally gave in and surrendered.  It was a hard and long fight, the battle has been on-going for three decades.  I gave it my best but in the end, that just wasn’t enough.  Reality slowly started to creep into my consciousness and late last week, I threw up my arms in capitulation.  But I am left with some memories.  To this day, when I swim and dive into the water, I come up and whip my head back for once such a move was required to keep my hair out of my eyes.  But no more!  Actually, whipping my head when I come up out of the water hasn’t been required since I was in my early or mid-20s. That was back in my Afro-days, when my hair was wild and crazy.  After I decided military life wasn’t for me, I let it grow and grow.  In my late twenties, when I received the last haircut by my hair stylist in North Carolina before moving to Pittsburgh for grad school, she took pity on me and charged me half price as a going away gift.  But she couldn’t leave it at that; she then told me she only had to do half the work on my head.  Do you think she got a tip?  I didn’t think so.  By the time I was in my forties, I was in full retreat.  I kept my sides cut short. I had to keep the sides trimmed more and more to keep from looking like Bozo. I also began to collect caps and hats.  Today, I have closet devoted to such head coverings.  Last week, when I was having a trim, I told the barber to go ahead and cut the three curly hairs that still grew on the top of my scalp.  I am afraid I will look like Jessie Ventura or whatever that wrestling guy who was in politics in Wisconsin or was it Minnesota.  Do you know whatever happened to him, anyway?   I know, I’m trying to change the subject!
this is likely the only shot you'll see without a hat

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Life after hell...

So long Blinky.  After thirty years of living in hell, Matt Groening decides to give it up and head to a cooler climate.  His gain will be our loss.  On Friday, after the publication of his 1669th “Life in Hell” comic strip came to an end.  Groening, like Dante, gets to escape hell, something other residents of the devil’s den only dream of.  But let's not talk theology.
Although many of us probably think we know what it is to live a life in hell, but the strip is different.  It began as Groening’s way of describing life in his new hometown, Los Angles.  Groening is the creator of the Simpsons.  The strip was published, until yesterday, mostly in free alternative newspapers that one finds in newspaper boxes on the corners of many of our city streets (especially around universities), right next to the ads taunting bargains from the seedier side of the city. 

Sadly, I haven’t kept up with the “Life in Hell” comic strip over the past couple of decades.  But when I was a student in Pittsburgh and later in San Francisco, one of the things I enjoyed from those ad-filled alternative newspapers was this strip with its rather plain looking bunnies as characters.  Some strips were funnier than others.  Some strips made me mad, for I didn’t agree with Groening’s point-of-view even though I would find myself smirking.   For years, I kept above my desk a copy of the comic’s “forbidden words for the 90s” which included those slang words of the 80s that I had grown sick of hearing.  Of course, the 90s brought its own set of overused words, as have the other decades and Groening has done his duty as keeping us apprised of new words and phrases that have been so overused in media and along the sidewalks that they’ve become a cliché before even having an opportunity to reach puberty.  For his tireless efforts to rid us of stale language, Groening should receive the Nobel Peace Prize or maybe one of those the Presidential Freedom Awards.

Now that Groening has retired, maybe Jerry Sandusky will want to revive the strip.  I am sure he’s going to have plenty of time on his hands.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Robert Johnson Anniversary

I came across this article from a friend’s Facebook feed which reminded me of a 75th Anniversary yesterday that shouldn’t go unnoticed.  75 years ago, Robert Johnson, an itinerant blues guitarist who never achieved much fame in life as he played in racially segregated jute joints and night clubs around the Mississippi delta, made his final recordings for the Brunswick Record Corporation in Dallas Texas.  Today, Johnson is known as one of the greatest guitarists of all times.  It was Johnson’s third visit to a studio, the first two being in San Antonio, Texas.  A year later, Johnson died at the age of 27.  Over the years many legends have risen concerning how Johnson came to play the blues (he sold his soul to the devil at a country crossroads) and how he died (the husband of one of his lovers poisoned a bottle of whiskey).   He’s been featured in movies (remember the scene in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” where they pick him up at a lonesome crossroad in the Mississippi delta?) and in the early 1960s many of his songs were re-released in time for the rise of Rock-and-Roll as musicians such as Eric Clapton, Brian Jones, Robert Plant, Jimmy Hendrix and Keith Richards were all influenced by his music.  Many of his songs have been recorded by others include “The Rolling Stones” and “Led Zepplin.”  In the early 90s, right after they were released, I purchased his two CD volume, “The Complete Recordings.”  The boxed set includes a biography of Johnson (there is much that is not known) as well as tributes to the man by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.  Today, according to the article, the building where Johnson’s final recordings were made is being restored by First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas as part of the church’s commitment to Dallas’ downtown.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Rambling childhood memories: Brian and Mr. C, our church youth group and Boy Scouts

When I was back in North Carolina last week, I ran into Mr. C and got to thinking about some other people I knew and began this memoir about a friend of mine from my late elementary and early junior high years.  This is a long post, I should have made it two posts, but decided not to do that.  Brian use to always give me a hard time for spelling his name Brain…  I noticed I had to correct myself a few times as I typed this…  He should have considered it a compliment as I don’t think his grades were any better than mine.

I knew we was being set up but didn’t know how to stop it.  Mr. C. wasn’t known as an outdoors man.  I was pretty sure that in my 13 years, I’d spent more nights sleeping outside that he had in his lifetime.  Yet, here he was challenging me, along with my brother and Brian, three Boy Scouts, with a quiz.  “What do you do if you find yourself having to go to the bathroom in the woods with just one piece of toilet paper?”  We suggested finding leaves and holding it in, but those weren’t the right answers.  Mr. C. had one of us go to the bathroom and bring back a single piece of toilet paper.  In a very serious and methodical way, he folded the square in half and half again, so that it was quarter size.  Again, he taunted us, asking what kind of Boy Scouts we were for not knowing something so essential.  Then he ripped a corner out of the toilet paper, insisting that this corner was very important and that great care should be taken not to lose it.  He then opened up the single sheet of toilet paper, which now had a hole in the center.  Into this hole he slipped his index finger and proceeded to tell us to wipe out butt with the finger.   “And then,” he continued as he pulled out that most important ripped piece of toilet paper, “you use this to clean your nail.”  We had been had.  Such is my only memory of my 8th grade church youth group Christmas party.  We were at someone’s home, can’t remember who’s.  Mr. C sat in a chair while the three of us gathered around him like disciples.    

Our church youth group was never very large, but we were always close.  There were about a dozen of us who stuck together through high school, with only a few changes.  Brain’s family would move away later that year, to South Carolina I think, but in time he would be replaced by the Matthews, some new kids who’d moved in. 

I lost track of Brian even though we had been close friends since the fourth grade when my family moved to the Wilmington area and started to go to the church where his family attended.  In addition to the church, we were in the same scout troop.  But we attended different schools.  I would later learn that he moved back to the area, but lived north of town and went to a different high school, and that he was engaged to Sharon, a girl that I liked for a short while as an eighth grader at Roland Grice Junior High.   On another note, while in college, I’d later marry Mr. C’s daughter, a girl Brian liked.  They both attended Sunset Park Elementary and Jr. High.  When Mr. C and his family moved to Savannah for year, our Sunday School teacher had us all write her a card and we were all mushy about her and her lonely lover boy.  Shortly after Brian moved, she and I first got together.  It wouldn’t last, but we started dating late in our senior year in high school and a couple years later we married.  It didn’t work out.  I hope Brain and Sharon had better luck. 

Although I attended Vacation Bible School every summer, I only have memories from one of those summers.  It was 1967, the summer of love, but also the summer of the Six Day War.  While making our crafts, I remember Brian and I talking about the war that was going on at the time half-a-world away.  It seemed real, as we were studying about Abraham and the war was being fought over the area through which he’d wandered.  My other memory was us gathering up stalks of sandspurs that grew to the side of the church which had not yet had a lawn put in.  In our final assembly, as we were all standing and singing praises to God, we flicked these sand spurs on the kids who sat in the pew in front of us and they caught onto their shirts and blouses.  When they sat back in the pews after the songs, the spurs bit into their backs and they howled.  The teachers were all mad at us, especially me because I looked guilty and was laughing.  Brian was always able to keep a straight face and I was generally the first to be indicted.  That evening, however, we were all chastised.  Thinking back on this prank, we should have been given credit for getting the men serious about putting the rest of the lawn in around the church. 

Brian and I was also a pair in Boy Scouts.  At one time or another we were both the assistant patrol leader when the other was the patrol leader.  Being patrol leader generally meant you made out the menu and your mother did the shopping.  It also meant led your patrol in competitions at camporees and we both earned blue ribbons that went on the Cobra Patrol’s staff.   One camporee I remember, which was held on the large Pembroke Jones Estate, rained so hard that all the competitions were cancelled.  We stayed in the tent all day; napping and listening on a nine volt transistor radio to Georgia Tech beat North Carolina in football.  The weather matched our mood.  When our leaders told us to pack things up, we’re going home, we were happy.  Being patrol leaders also meant we got to dry out the tents later in the week after the rain had stopped.

In our Junior High Youth Group, it seemed we always ate.  We would go to an ice cream parlor and order  “the kitchen sink,” a huge banana split bowl that probably had a gallon of ice cream along with a  half dozen bananas, a dozen or more cherries and dripping with chocolate syrup.  It was enough for our whole group.  On another occasion, we had a cookout under the huge longleaf pines at Hugh McRae Park.  We all roasted hot dogs over a fire and afterwards, climbed in the back of someone’s truck bed covered with pine straw, for a “hay ride” out to Maco, a siding along the Atlantic Coastline track west of town.  Today, kids riding in the back of a truck would be considered criminal and the thought of sitting on tick infested pine straw doesn’t seem nearly as exciting as it did when I was a seventh grader.   But we snuggled close and let Brian and Mr. C’s daughter sit next to the cab where they couldn’t be seen as well from her father who rode shotgun on the inside and kept looking back to make sure we weren’t doing anything bad.  I don’t think they did anything more than hold hands, but it seemed pretty risqué at the time. 

At the beginning of our eighth grade, we elected officers for our Junior High Youth Group.  Brian wanted to be president so bad that he spent the entire Sunday School hour campaigning.  When we met that evening for youth group, he volunteered right away to offer the opening prayer.  No one in the history of youth groups, ours or others, had ever volunteered as quickly as Brian did that evening.  The protocol was to wait and make our leaders beg, plead and bargain to get us to pray.  This evening Brian volunteered right away.  He prayed for God to make him the youth group president.  Such vainglory was just too much for us budding Calvinists.  Brian wasn’t elected president.  I don’t remember who was, but I remember that he wasn’t!   Later that year, Brian moved away and I never saw him again, but a few years after high school, my mother had run into his mother and told me about his pending marriage.     

Editor’s note:  After writing the above, I did a google search and came across the obituary for Brian’s mother who died a few months ago.  I knew right away from the photo that it was her, even though it’s been forty years since I’ve seen her.  Brian was married, but not to Sharon… 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Recent Travels (Snorkeling and Baldhead Island)

Lighthouse on Baldhead
I got back from North Carolina a little before midnight last night.  It was a long ways to drive while arguing over music with a teenager who reminded me that next year, she could drive and I could sleep.  I told her that the thought of that will keep me from sleeping till next year and that I don’t think learner’s permits are valid out-of-state (I maybe wrong, but it was a good story).  We finally compromised on listening to a book and I was surprised that she was willing to listen to Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain.  We got through about half of the book.  In addition to seeing family and exploring colleges (did our guide at Davidson really wear a pressed Polo dress shirt with shorts and flip-flops), we spent lots of time on the beach.  One morning I went snorkeling with my brother at the jetty on the north end of Masonboro Island.  Another day, we went my brother, sister-in-law and niece to Baldhead Island, which sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.   It was a nice ride in the boat down the river and back.  My daughter and I also took in a movie, going to see The Hunger Games (a large part of the movie was filmed in North Carolina). 
Beach houses on Baldhead

Back in the late 70s, they started developing Baldhead (you have to take a ferry or boat over).  Before that, the only people who lived on the island were the lighthouse keeper, an occasional garrison.  In the Revolutionary War, the British built a fort on Baldhead to protect their fleet that mostly stayed moored in the mouth of the Cape Fear where they remained a thorn in the Colonies side.  What may have been the first amphibious operation by the American military occurred on the island when the colonies attempted to remove the British.  It was unsuccessful.    During the Civil War, Fort Holmes protected the main (south channel) of the Cape Fear, but when Fort Fisher (which guarded a shallower yet preferred channel used by blockade runners) fell, Fort Holmes found itself cut off and was abandoned.  
Marsh behind Baldhead
The point at Cape Fear
The barrier islands are shifting sand.  Much of Fort Holmes (as is much of Fort Fisher) is now in the Atlantic as the shoreline changes. Of course, those who build houses don't think much about the shifting coastline, but it's a reality and the island shape may change again, come another hurricane.  In front of Baldhead are the Frying Pan Shoals that extend out some forty or fifty miles and causing lots of shipwrecks.
The Fort Fisher/Southport Ferry (as we ran back up the river)
A jellyfish (from my snorkeling expedition)
One of the neat things of the little pocket camera that I got for my trip last year is that it's waterproof up to 25 feet and can be used to snorkel.  The water wasn't that clear the day my brother was out, but we did see a lot of fish (some sizable sheephead and black drum along with lots of pin fish and spot)
That's me on the surface
that's me, underwater
that Sheephead wasn't very photogenic